I was sitting in a restaurant in Indonesia, watching the sunset over the Indian Ocean and sharing a beer with an Australian friend. The conversation turned to travel, as it often does when wanderers meet in a foreign land.
“Why don’t I meet more Americans when I’m traveling the world, mate? I’ve heard that only ten percent of Americans have passports. I once read an article that said that George W. Bush didn’t even have a passport when he was elected president.”
I wasn’t familiar with either of these facts so I was caught a little off guard. Both statements seemed implausible but not completely outrageous.
“America is a huge country” I responded. “We don’t need a passport to travel within the states. America has beaches, islands, mountains, amazing cities, nature, wildlife, and incredible National Parks. We can even travel to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands without a passport” I continued, bragging on my country. “One could spend a lifetime exploring America and still not see everything.”
But, my Australian friend’s question remained. “Why don’t more Americans travel the world?”
I have noticed in my own travels that I meet a great deal of Europeans and Australians but rarely run into fellow Americans. America is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, so why are we so unrepresented in the global tourism scene?
Some quick research shows that in 2023 approximately forty percent of Americans hold a valid passport. So, my friend may have been wrong on that point. But, as recently as the 1990’s the figure was actually closer to ten percent. Still, that means that fewer than half of all Americans even own a passport.
Looking at my own circumstances, I realized that I didn’t have a passport until after I graduated from law school. The truth is that I really didn’t have much of a need for a passport before then.
It’s hard to remember this, but prior to 2001, Americans didn’t need a passport to travel to Mexico, Canada, or many of the Caribbean islands. I remember hopping on a ship to the Bahamas with nothing more than a Mississippi driver’s license.
In America, we can hop a flight to visit our crazy cousins in California, or we can drive to the Grand Canyon with the grandkids. The ability to travel is as American as apple pie and baseball.
Travel is a part of everyday life in America. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we don’t think twice about driving to New Orleans for a day of shopping or to see the Saints play in the Superdome. It isn’t uncommon for friends in Jackson to drive to Destin for a long weekend. Folks in Oxford routinely drive to Memphis to fly from the airport. We take for granted these interstate trips without even giving a thought to state boundaries.
Americans see interstate travel as simply a part of being an American. The freedom to travel is something that we don’t even contemplate. We view interstate travel as a natural or God given right.
However, the right of Americans to engage in interstate travel should not be taken for granted. The right to travel is one of the rights that is guaranteed in the Constitution. The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot set up boundaries to interfere with interstate travel of Americans. And, the Court has held that international travel is also a right that is guaranteed to Americans, and cannot be unreasonably infringed upon.
We can pickup any newspaper or go to any online forum and see people debating our First or Second Amendment rights. We never see anyone debating our Constitutional right to travel.
I think that Americans view the right to travel as even more basic than free speech or the right to bear arms. The next time a politician talks about a “national divorce” or a split among red and blue states, think about how that “divorce” might affect our ability to travel around America.
As for international travel, an American passport is one of the most valuable documents in the world. Each year, the Henley Passport Index ranks all of the world’s passports according to destinations that can be accessed without a prior visa. There are currently 193 countries and 6 independent territories that issue passports. In 2023, an American passport allows a passport holder to enter 187 different countries without a visa. By contrast, the United States only allows the citizens of 40 countries to enter our borders without a visa.
So, the question remains, why don’t more Americans travel internationally? I often ask other Americans about why they don’t travel more and here are some of the most common answers.
There is a great deal to see and do in America
Like I told my Australian friend, America is a huge country. When Americans take vacations, it is easy to hop in a car and drive to a vacation spot. Whether it is a beach, a mountain resort, or an interesting city, a change of scenery is just a short drive away. Why fly to an exotic tropical island when we can drive to Florida for the same sand, sun, and surf? A frozen daiquiri tastes the same in Grand Bay as it does in Grand Bahama.
We believe that international travel is expensive
When we see social media posts of private villas or advertisements of all inclusive resorts we think that travel has to be expensive. The number one question I get asked about travel is, how can you afford to travel as much as you do? The fact is that travel does not have to be expensive. In fact, I usually spend less per day traveling than I do staying home in the United States. I can spend a little as $35 a day in a foreign destination. By traveling in the off season, staying in inexpensive hostels, and eating locally, travel can be cheaper than staying at home.
Americans don’t have the time to travel overseas
Americans just don’t get as many vacation days as other advanced countries. American culture is that we have to work hard in order to get ahead. Americans are lucky to get two weeks of vacation per year. Half of American workers don’t even get that. And, of those who do get vacation days, many don’t use them. On the other hand, it is not unusual for Europeans and Australians to get four or six weeks of paid vacation. And, these countries require workers to take their vacation days. Because of this limited amount of time off, Americans simply don’t have the time to enjoy an overseas trip.
We are afraid to travel to foreign destinations
Another question I am often asked is if I am ever afraid when I am traveling to another country. When we turn on the news we often see conflicts and chaos in other countries. We hear about China threatening the American economy, or we hear about terrorists taking hostages. We hear that certain countries don’t like Americans or that some group is looking to take revenge on Americans for something our government may have done. The truth is that Americans are welcome virtually everywhere in the world. When I tell people that I am from America I am immediately bombarded with curious questions about home. They want to know if what they see in the movies or hear in music is really what America is like. I am reminded of a young man from Zimbabwe who wanted me to teach him how to make nachos because he always sees them in American movies. Also, because guns are highly regulated and not prevalent in most countries, I feel much safer traveling in foreign cities than I do in most American cities.
Only about twenty percent of Americans speak a foreign language. I am often asked how I get by when I travel to non-english speaking countries. I am one of the majority of Americans who don’t speak another language. However, that has never hindered me from traveling. I always try to learn a few common phrases to show that I am making an effort. It is amazing how far we can get by simply knowing how to say hello, please, and thank you. Also, unless I am very far off the beaten path, I usually find someone who not only knows how to speak English but is usually excited to get to practice their English with an American. English really is a global language.
Saint Augustine said that “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” My Australian friend learned that lesson a long time ago. It’s time that Americans learn that lesson as well. Get a passport, open the book, and see the world.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.
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