We’ve all heard the depressing statistic that only 36% of Americans own a passport. That’s really low (about 70% of Australians and 70% of Brits hold a passport) and though that number has been rising the last couple of years, it’s only because Americans are now required to have a passport when entering Mexico and Canada.
As I’ve traveled the world, I’ve noticed a shockingly low number of American tourists when compared to citizens of other countries. And while the post-graduate backpacking trip to Europe is still a lively tradition, I’ve been to many parts of the world where American tourists are as rare as a white tiger.
Americans don’t travel internationally that much.
Why is that?
Why is it that the United States, a country with 350 million people and the world’s superpower, turns a blind eye to the rest of the planet, and political figures tout their lack of overseas travel as a plus?
I believe there are a few things that have brought us here:
Most family vacations in the US are to other parts of the US. Why? Because the states takes up the width (and a lot of the height) of a whole continent, and we have all the world’s environments within our borders. Need beaches? Head to Florida. The tropics? Hawaii. Desert? Arizona. The cold tundra? Alaska. Temperate forests? Washington. This attitude about America having all you need is best summed up by a response I got from a friend in Iowa: “Why would you want to go to Thailand? It’s far and scary. If you want beaches, just go to Florida.” Americans simply don’t see the need to go anywhere else when they can do it all in their own country, especially when they are afraid of the world (more on that later).
Americans just don’t see a need to leave their country when they feel they have all they need in it. People are always afraid of the unknown so why visit an unknown country to hike in a jungle when you can go somewhere on in your own?
But geography is a byproduct of far more serious (and dangerous) reasons for American’s lack of interest in the world.
What really keeps Americans home is a belief that the world is dangerous so not only do they not need to go overseas, many feel that it would be foolish to!
Americans are just scared of the world. I mean, really scared. Maybe even petrified. In this post-9/11 world, Americans have been taught that the world is a big, frightening place. There are terrorists outside every hotel waiting to kidnap you. People don’t like you because you are American. The world is violent. It’s poor. It’s dirty. It’s savage. Canada and Europe are O.K., but, if you go there, they will still be rude to you because you are American and no one likes us.
Even before 9/11, the media created an environment of fear. If it bleeds, it leads, right? The media plays up violence at home and abroad. Pictures of riots in foreign streets, threats against Americans, and general violence were all played up to portray a volatile and unsafe world. After 9/11, it only got worse. Politicians now tell us “they hate you,” as former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani did during his failed presidential campaign. It’s US vs. THEM!!! Get the guns! Don’t go overseas! They’ll all try to kill you!
I met an American overseas who pretended to be Canadian because he was afraid people would hurt him if they found out the truth. He had no proof other than to repeat the cliché that “the world doesn’t like Americans.”
While in Amsterdam, I met a few Americans on a tour in Europe and asked them why they choose a tour. Their answer? “We didn’t want to end up like in the movie Taken, kidnapped and being sold into sex slavery. It’s not safe for women.”
When I tell people I travel in hostels, they think I’m going to end up in Bratislava the subject of medical experiments.
Bombarded by negative news coverage and movies that paint the picture of a dangerous and hateful world for decades, to Americans the world is a scary place, and it’s a perception only reinforced by the media and politicians.
Yes, I said it. Americans don’t travel because they are ignorant. I mean ignorant as in they don’t know what is going on outside their own borders, not that they are dumb.
I mean, I don’t blame my fellow citizens, really.
When you are told the world is scary, why would you want to care about it? Why would you want to go to places where locals supposedly want to kill you?
Why learn about the world when America is “number one in everything” and “the best country in the entire planet?” as our politicians and media keep telling us.
Sarah Palin, when running for election, implied that traveling is for the rich: “I’m not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents get ’em a passport and give ’em a backpack and say go off and travel the world. Noooo. I worked all my life… I was not, uh, a part of, I guess, that culture.”
Yup, learning about the world is a luxury only the rich can afford! (I say sarcastically.)
We’ve all seen the Jay walking clips and the skits on TV where Americans can’t name foreign leaders, countries, or even point to Iraq on a map. As education budgets continue to get slashed, humanity courses are usually the first to go meaning people learn very little world history. In some states, the whole world has to be explained in one year. History, foreign affairs, and languages are optional and become more so as you get older (I have friends who never took a politics or history class beyond 10th grade!).
We don’t take languages, we avoid overseas programs, and we don’t talk about our world in schools. Our schools teach one foreign language: Spanish, and that is only because we have a large Spanish-speaking population in the country, not because we want to go to a Spanish speaking country!
Worse, the media doesn’t focus on the world unless it relates to something bad. It’s always about riots, crime, or anti-American protests.
Only 3% of local news is devoted to foreign affairs.
Americans simply aren’t exposed to the world in a way that would prove their fears wrong and make them interested in the world.
Travel costs too much, or at least that’s the belief. When you only see commercials and ads for expensive resorts, you begin to believe that. Since most people in America don’t travel, you don’t get the first hand accounts from friends telling you that “no, travel isn’t expensive.” And when people travel, they travel to the resorts thus thinking travel is expensive. It’s a vicious cycle.
But is it that much more expensive to fly somewhere from America? Nope! A flight from LAX to Bangkok is $787 dollars. A flight from London to Bangkok is $654. A flight from Sydney to Bangkok is $794. Americans bear no extra cost burden relative to the rest of the world.
There are many ways to travel the world cheaply. There are countless ways to do it, so many that I can’t list them here but needless to say, the belief travel is expensive is one big reason people don’t travel.
Americans typically get about two weeks of travel per year. Overseas, the average is about 4-5 weeks, not including sick leave. So time is a major factor. It makes more sense to fly to Australia for 3 weeks than it does for 1. But there is more to it than that. Travel is not a priority here. In the trade-off between time and money, Americans choose money. A few years ago, there was a story on TV about how there is a growing trend to take only ONE week of vacation. Two consecutive weeks is considered too many. It’s a sign that your work isn’t important, you aren’t a team player, or you are lazy. Workers are made to feel guilty about leaving. And, in this tough job market, no one wants to seem less than 110% committed. (The Japanese and Koreans, who are so committed to work they often sleep in their offices, take more time off than Americans!)
There’s no one reason why Americans don’t travel. All of these reasons are interconnected. Each reason reinforces the other. While attacking one reason can help, it’s not until we combat two or three that we might finally turn the tide and get Americans looking outward to the world.
The sad irony is that we created the world we are so afraid of. America’s push for a globalized world brought many players onto the stage. It helped the Chinese dragon emerge from its cage, brought India to the game, helped Brazil, and tore down communism. Now, we look at the world terrified because we no longer understand it or our place in it. Instead of trying to learn more, we erect barriers and bury our heads in the sand.
Thankfully, the Internet has made people more at ease meeting people around the world. But the cultural forces pushing against them are strong. A weak economy, a weak dollar, and a weakening US have seemed to make America more isolationist. I don’t know the future. But I do know that right now, Americans still aren’t traveling overseas.
And, sadly, that won’t change any time soon.