Why More Americans Don’t Travel Abroad

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In Sydney, we stayed in a six-bed dorm room with another American and two Germans, which prompted one of the Germans to declare, “I’ve never seen so many Americans in one room.” In Indonesia, the only other Americans I met in three weeks were a couple on vacation in Bali. It’s true. Not many Americans travel abroad.

That story, by CNN, lays out four main reasons Americans don’t travel: not enough time off work, the high price, our own cultural and geographic diversity, and our fear and/or misconceptions about the world beyond our borders. It’s true that we don’t get as much time off work as citizens of many European countries, for example. And taking “gap years” is generally not done. (That’s a topic for another post.) Our geography is extremely diverse; whereas a Singaporean wanting to go skiing over the winter holidays has no choice but to leave the country, we can just fly to Colorado. And yes, it’s expensive to cross the Atlantic or Pacific (although low-cost carriers are trying to break into the Pacific market, so watch that one.)

In my opinion, our cultural diversity probably leads more people to travel, not fewer. Let’s be honest: most of us hang out with people who look pretty much like ourselves. This prevents most of us from truly learning about another culture. And even if you do have lots of friends from many different backgrounds, it’s probably impossible to have friends from everywhere in the world. In the article, one guy mentions that since he lives in LA, he can visit one of many ethnic neighborhoods for a cultural experience. He theorizes that for some people, that may be a substitute for travel. I disagree. While residents of many cities can visit their local Chinatown or eat at a Spanish or Thai restaurant, I don’t think anybody comes away from that experience thinking “Okay, I don’t have to go to China/ Spain/ Thailand now,” unless it was a bad experience! Usually those are the kind of experiences that pique one’s interest- trying a new cuisine, witnessing a festival, making friends with someone who was born in foreign country. My trip to Thailand five years ago can be directly attributed, in part, to the fact that I had tried and enjoyed Thai food in Virginia. Being able to try things out at home before traveling abroad is a great resource we Americans have.

I think that the number one obstacle to international travel is fear, skepticism, misconceptions, ignorance- whatever you want to call it. It’s in our own heads. We’re afraid that we’ll be misunderstood, ripped off, mugged, or worse. We don’t want to get hurt or sick. We’re skeptical of the benefits of international travel, or we’ve heard that the locals don’t like Americans. And we’re ignorant of countries and cultures themselves- we’re just not very internationalized, compared to most people I’ve met overseas. It’s partially a media problem. While the Japanese watch Desperate Housewives and the Indonesian high school girls I met absolutely adore Twilight, the converse doesn’t happen to us: we don’t get very many foreign movies and TV shows, and the news on foreign countries tends to be much less than favorable. This leads us to think destinations are dangerous or scary, without ever having seen the human side. It’s partially a school curriculum problem- we don’t emphasize foreign language learning or classes on comparative cultures. And it’s a self-perpetuating problem: if my friends and family didn’t travel, it would be very hard for me to go against the grain and go abroad. Unfortunately for us, we are rather isolated geographically, but that’s no reason to put up barriers in our own minds.

Luckily, there’s a cure, even if you don’t currently have the time or money to travel abroad (or think you don’t.) Take all your vacation days- you earned them, and plenty of studies show that taking time off boosts productivity. If it’s just a money issue, try looking at other destinations. In the comments section for that article, lots of people complained about the high cost of European vacations. Central and South America and much of Asia are very good value- it’s much cheaper here in Asia than staying home. If you find yourself thinking that travel outside the US (especially in countries less developed than the US) is too scary, think again. Most places, in fact everywhere I’ve ever been, are not as bad as most people think. Jakarta and Manila have a fairly dangerous, slummy image in the American media, but both are developed, world-class cities with air-conditioned shopping malls and English newspapers, and most residents do not live in slums. You’re probably just as likely to get hurt or sick as you are at home, and a lot less likely to get mugged than in most American cities. And actually, most people do like Americans. Many don’t like our government constantly meddling in their business- but people are very good at separating the American public and the government, and don’t blame us for their actions.

The cure is knowledge. Read, read, read- but try something other than the news once in a while. Blogs and novels offer different viewpoints. Embrace the cultural diversity we have on our own soil. Educate yourself. Even if the number of Americans with passports remains low, we don’t have to be so misguided when it comes to foreign travel.