"Only one percent of Americans carry passports," Bill Tibble, the manager of Palmer's Lodge Boutique Hostel tells me, "I saw it on CSI." I've heard this "statistic" in interviews, on buses and at numerous pubs. It's taken as proof that Americans are uninterested in the world. Is there any truth to it?
First I checked the facts, which are admittedly fuzzy: seems about one in three Americans carry passports. That’s far better than one in twenty, but still less than Canada, where 2 in 5 carry passports, and less than much of Europe where the majority carry them.
But there are some reasons, other than being self-absorbed, for why this might be:
1) America is huge. You can ski and surf in one state alone.
2) International travel is relatively expensive for us. We generally have to fly across one of two oceans to get off our soil.
3) Americans have less vacation time. We have on average two weeks of vacation a year versus a month in England. So with longer flight times, precious vacation time can get lost in transit.
4) There’s less desire to emigrate from the U.S. than other nations so perhaps less interest in checking out other places to live.
5) Passports haven’t always been necessary for travel to the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada. Now they are, and we’re seeing a rise in requests for passports. In fact, the surge in applications was more than expected, causing long delays in issuing passports.
6) Citizens of small European countries -- the size of, say, Maryland -- have long needed passports to travel across their borders. We don't need passports to travel between U.S. states.
But even if these statistics do confirm Americans are less interested in going to other countries, travel doesn’t always equal worldliness. A spring break in Cancun, Mexico isn’t very different than one in Miami. Same is true for Britons: resort towns on the coast of Spain offer plenty of sangria, but not much taste for the real culture of Spain.
Tiddle's CSI statistic is way off. But what does this perception of American travel documentation suggest? For one, it supports the “Arrogant American” image I hear so often here: that U.S. citizens think everything they could want in the world is within their borders, and that the world is just a bother to be kept at bay (from immigrant laborers to terrorists). Google "Arrogant American" and then try "Arrogant European" then "Arrogant French" then "Arrogant Chinese". The numbers drop off fast.
The "passport perception" also makes the personal political, often to the average Americans' disadvantage. Our current President didn’t travel much before getting into office, even though he could afford to, a number of interviewees pointed out. His perceived insularity reflects badly on all of us.
An Aussie backpacker named Ryan Gordan at the hostel quips: Americans are so insular, "they don't know Australia from North Korea." A favorite comedy TV show of his, "Chaser's War on Everything" (with almost two million YouTube views) showed its anchors wandering around America asking geography questions. The interviewees may have been shown selectively, but no question it wasn't pretty.
Gordan traveled around the world for the past six months, and visited America. Surely he saw it wasn't true? Ryan says he doesn't know -- he couldn't stay long enough to really find out. Commonwealth countries like England and New Zealand offer him a "working tourist visa" which allows low-budget travelers to stay and look for employment -- such as bartending -- so they don't need to find employment beforehand. America didn't provide that option, and he couldn't afford to stay in the U.S. for more than two weeks without a job.
America's "too afraid of terrorists" and "of being flooded by immigrants" to offer a program like this, says Ryan. He didn't say if these were reasonable concerns or not, just that they contribute to an inward-looking society. A New Zealander named Graham Gordon chimes in, "Kiwis have the Big OE [Overseas Experience] and in Australia they call it "walk about" because we're so far away from the world it's quite a big thing to go traveling" after high school or college. The British have their "gap year."
As important as the total number of U.S. travelers is, it seems to me we should consider the question of whether young people -- college students, recent graduates -- see the world, and how they do it. We don't have a standard OE, "walk about" or "gap year," but I know plenty of American college kids who have studied overseas. Then again, when young people in the U.S. are in need of an adventure, we always have our cars and the legendary road trip.