"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.