Friday, January 2, 2015

A New World View: Why Americans Really Need to Get Out More Often

by Nomad

Surveys tell us that fewer Americans are traveling abroad anymore. There are, of course, a good reasons why people would prefer to stay home, However, as country with a record of intervening in other nations, it is strange how incurious and uninformed so Americans have become about the rest of the planet.

How does our stay-at-home attitude influence our ideas about the rest of the world? Has it made us more arrogant and more ignorant?

Mark Twain, the travel writer, once said
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” 
For citizens of a nation with so many imperial ambitions, it amazes me how few Americans actually have ever been abroad.
That's a kind of a pity too. In comparison to a lot of other nationalities, average Americans are not bad ambassadors for their country.

In fact, 35 per cent of all Americans admit that they do not even own a passport and more than half - 54% - have never traveled outside the U.S.

According to one survey of over 2000 citizens,  41 per cent of travelers who have never been abroad feel that everything worth visiting is in the U.S.
About half of the respondents said that if they had the money, they would like to travel to other countries while about 26% said they would rather not go abroad.

The Fear Factor
For some people, the idea of leaving the US is a scary idea. Which is rather odd if you think about it since the overwhelming majority of Americans originally came from stock that were more than eager to take a risk in search of new horizons. Except for our Native American brothers, the American saga is based on travelling to parts unknown and the search for adventure.

Today, the media tends make us a timid lot, giving us a lot of sight-seeing without much in the way of enlightenment or inspiration. Moreover, the news media in the US tends to promote the notion that international travel is dangerous or that Americans are the number one targets for all kinds of "evil-doers."  
One murdered American abroad receives disproportional attention. Had the same incident occurred not in São Paulo but in San Diego, few people would think twice.
In fact, depending on where you go, Americans are much more likely to be treated like touring royalty. 
 As long as we Americans don't act or expect to be treated like  royalty, we are usually as well-received as any other foreign nationals. (And generally better than you'd expect.)
On the rare occasion that I have encountered a native with anti-American ax to grind, I have heard him say, "I have no problem with Americans, just your government."
That's no surprise; a lot of American citizens feel the same way! 
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Travel destination choices may also reflect some apprehensions about international sight-seeing. According to one source:
America's most popular overseas countries are: England (9% of all trips), France (7%), Italy (7%), Germany (5%), Dominican Republic (5%), Jamaica (5%), Japan (4%), China (4%), India (4%) and Spain (4%). Other significant countries visited include: Bahamas (3%) and Costa Rica (3%). With just six percent of Americans trips going to the Middle East, and even fewer, just three percent, visiting the whole continent of Africa, and two percent going to Australia/New Zealand.
Places that are only slightly exotic and where English -in some fashion- is likely to be spoken. Not adventurous but understandable.  

A closer look at that information provides us with more clues about why Americans tend to stay at home.

Practical Reasons To Stay at Home
St. Augustine of Hippo, the Christian theologian, once said:
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
However, there are also some pretty good technical reasons why Americans don't travel abroad. First of all, Americans are a ccomparativelyoverworked people. On average Americans that have full time employment get 12 days of vacation time. Compare that with fortunate Europeans who receive  25 and 30 days of vacation a year and typically use every day. (Is this a case of laziness? or is it a case of different priorities?)
The bottom line is: for those with a ten-day vacation to work with, long distance international travel is just not a practical option.   Who can enjoy paradise knowing that your precious time has been crushed between two bookends of hours spent in an airport or cramped on a plane?

As the part time employees increases- the number of people in part-time jobs jumped by more than 1 million in June to 27 million, according to the government’s data- fewer Americans can afford (or even qualify for) any vacation time at all. 

Even during vacations, most Americans (68%) continue to check in with the office regularly. If they can't get away from the office, it's mainly because they don't want to. 

Another problem with international travel is the cost. When people are forced to live from paycheck to paycheck, any hope of traveling is pretty much a lost cause. 
It is no mere coincidence that the average age of leisure travelers is 47.5 years old who comprise comprise 36 percent of leisure travel volume. People who have graduated from high school and college had a peak income between the ages of 45 and 54. That's gives them plenty of spending money. 
In addition, they are more likely to have earned more vacation time or have perhaps retired early. 

The average cost of international travel (combining air, car and hotel) in 2013 was $ 2,398, according to travel data from Travel Leaders Corporate. That's a real pity, if you have a genuine desire to see the world. Time and money are key factors in determining whether you will be season on a world tour next year. 
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Aside from those reasons, many Americans simply do not have much desire to stray too far from home. There was once a time when "doing" Europe was a mark of affluence for the middle class. then when the hippies came along, it was a sign of wanderlust. Today, the pervasive attitude is "Why bother?"
Author Gary Arndt, speaking to CNN, summed it up well:
"In the United States, we have an enormous amount of places we can travel -- basically an entire continent. You can do all kinds of things without needing a passport."
That's true. There's a lot to see and if you can't afford to fly all over the world, then by all means, get out and go! If you keep your mind and your eyes open, then you can learn plenty of things. About Americans.
For a person with a disability, even a walk around the park may be enough to enrich your life. (You can learn a lot about your neighbors by taking a stroll every day.) 

Except for the average person, there's also one problem with that Arndt's idea. Traveling inside America is not the same as traveling abroad. If it is just about seeing places. as he suggests, watching NatGeo might be enough for you.

Traveling vs. American Arrogance 
Here's another quote by Twain:
“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.”
Twain had it right but it's also true that one can very easily travel and return as much a consummate ass as when he left. It's about the quality of your travel and the mindset you have. A journey is not about how many pictures one snaps, or how many plates of weird food one eats. It's not about the souvenirs or the trinkets you can buy in the bazaar. It's certainly not about how many stamps are in your passport.

Ultimately the art of travelling is really all about the effect that the experience has on the traveler. That of course, depends on the traveler's sensitivity and capacity.

Mass tourism doesn't cater that way of travelling. Too often mass tourism is all about shuttling for place to place, listening to rather bored tourist guides, and constantly being the target of merchandise-peddling profiteers is not going to change your world view. You can easily find yourself pampered like a princess in a bubble-world of banquets and swimming pools and air conditioned rooms which, for all of its pleasure, could be located anywhere.

Quality travel is often, about learning how to let go of a lot of preconceived ideas about people. It means discarding the generally baseless claim that your way- the American way- is always the best way. (It can be, but not always.)

Too often you will find Americans trying to tell the rest of the world how to live, even when they haven't a clue how the world really is, how people live and how they think.

This ignorance about the world- especially for a superpower- can lead to all kinds of effects. The lack of real first-hand experience puts most Americans at a disadvantage in comprehending foreign policy. Even when they are not actually aware of that disadvantage.
Just knowing the kind of basic geography that any elementary school student in the world knows is enough to put an American in his homeland into the smarty-pants category.

The Ignorance of a Superpower
One travel blogger, Matthew Kepnes of, puts it in a extremely diplomatic way:
"Our culture doesn't emphasize knowledge of the world. We're more skeptical of it because we just don't know about it."
That kind of ignorance creates an information vacuum about the world which can be dangerous. It tends to make us arrogant. It can lead us to make judgments based on wrong ideas. It allows us to think in short hand- or stereotypes. We can believe, for example, that all Iranians are devout Muslims and hate Americans. That  Or that all Indians are poor and all Chinese are hardworking and frugal. 
A host of misconceptions and half-truths fill our heads until we are prepared to believe all kinds of nonsense. 

The very first thing the most people who travel outside their home countries learn is that there are a lot more ideas and dreams that people around the world share. We have a lot more in common than we have that separate us. There are differences of course, but that's really the interesting part. You quickly learn that we all tend to be much more united than we are lead to believe.   

 Around the world, the things we rank as important and valuable and precious are not all that unique. And when there is a major difference, we need to ask why. Have we lost something or have we forgotten something? Like the value of long-term friendships or the positives and negatives with conformism and individualism. How much better things are at home or abroad than we originally thought. 

Explore. Dream. Discover
Henry Miller was spot on when he said:
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Perhaps this cuts to the heart of the problem when Americans don't travel. The best thing about traveling is that sometimes - not too often, though- a traveler has a "eureka" moment- a sudden moment of clarity when an idea hits him. It just couldn't have happened if he had stayed within his own culture or inside his own home. 

In that moment, a person can change his own way of looking at life. It's next to impossible for that to happen when you are rushing from place to place on a package tour, trying to snap as many photos as possible before you go to the next place. It probably won't happen if you are in completely familiar territory. The best journey is when you come back home a different person. 

I will close this essay by returning to my old friend,Twain. 
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”