News & Politics

Only 30 Percent of Americans Have Passports: Why It Matters


According to a new report from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, only 30 percent of Americans currently have a valid passport. And in 2009, the number of trips outside the U.S. fell by three percent. Compare our stats to those of the well-traveled citizens of Western Europe, or to Canada, where 60 percent of the population have passports. There are a lot of reasons why Americans don’t or can’t travel more — and there a lot of reasons why we should.

The U.S. is a big country, and far from the rest of the world. If you lived in London, you could get to Paris in an afternoon on the EuroStar; if you live in New York, it’s a seven hour flight.

And we work hard, and don’t take a lot of vacations compared to other countries. And America is so culturally rich and diverse, and did we mention big? Not to mention the importance of the cross-country trip in our cultural mythology; we love to travel in the U.S., since there’s so much here. We love Hell’s Angels and cowboys and covered wagons and On the Road.

Thing is, this kind of thinking can lead to (and has led to) a myopic worldview that limits how well we can relate to the world, and how well the world can relate to us. David Sedaris has a great bit in one of his essays about France where he talks about how we all implicitly assume that America is number one. We’re taught that from birth, basically. But no other country is like, “we’re number two!” As long as we continue to assume we’re the best and that all we need is right here, we won’t feel the need to venture outside our borders.

Not to get all #firstworldproblems on this, because the unfortunate fact is, international travel is way too expensive for most of us. And that’s not anyone’s fault. But seriously, have you ever been in a restaurant or museum in a foreign city and watched the way a lot of Americans behave? Obviously this is a broad generalization, but many of us treat the world as if its our playground to do what we will in. We want every country to be a mini-America where we can expect all the amenities of home, because we’re not used to being away from home. I lived in France for a year in high school and was so freaked out about being labeled an “ugly American” that I routinely told people I was Canadian. Is that the reputation we want to have abroad?

I’m not as worried about the lower number of trips outside the U.S. as I am about the fact that not even a third of us have passports. It makes sense not to travel right now; that’s one of the first expenses that gets shunted to one side in tough economic times. But to not have a passport at all? To totally close off the possibility of international travel? That represents a sort of giving-up, a retreat from international life that’s kind of scary, frankly. The U.S. is not going to be on top forever. We’re going to have to get used to being a part of the global community — whether we like it or not.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 5, 2011

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