During the last decade as I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve noticed something, almost from the first week I was outside of the United States: American’s don’t travel much.
That isn’t to say I never meet Americans, but given the size and wealth of the country, there seems to be a significant dearth of Americans traveling abroad. I will often meet more travelers from Canada, Germany, Australia or the Netherlands than I do from the US. I’m not talking about on a per capita basis, but more travelers, even from countries which have 10% or less of the population of the United States.
Why Americans don’t travel is a puzzle I’ve been thinking about for years. America is a wealthy country and it is made up of people from every country on Earth. On the surface it would seem like Americans would be great travelers, but we aren’t.
Allianz Travel Insurance (full disclosure: I have a business relationship with them) recently published their annual Vacation Confidence Index. This year they found the following:
15 percent of Americans have been on a vacation in the last three months
170 million Americans (53 percent) haven’t taken a vacation in the last 12 months
16 percent haven’t been on vacation in one to two years
37 percent haven’t been on vacation in more than two years
The Vacation Confidence Index covers all travel, both domestic and international. If we focus on international travel, the situation looks even worse:
Only 35% of Americans have a passport (USA Today via State Deptartment Data)
Understanding all of these things could probably take up an entire Ph.D. thesis. However, I think I have a few ideas for how the United States got this way:
It’s A Big Country
The United States is big. It is the third largest country in the world by area, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The two larger countries (Russia and Canada) have large swaths of land which are very similar. Northern boreal forests up to tundra. The US has those type of lands, but we also have a lot more. We have deserts, prairies, tropical islands, swamps, and rainforests. There is a lot you can see in the United States without ever leaving the country or needing a passport. The US and its territories cover almost 90 degrees of latitude. If you want a beach vacation or a trip in the mountains, you can do it all in the US without a passport, and we are one of the only countries we can do that in.
Most people who migrated to the United States did so to pursue a better life. Working has always been a part of the culture here. Many people lament that Americans don’t get as much vacation time as the rest of the world, but the fact is, most Americans don’t use the vacation time they already have. If Americans valued vacation time, I’m quite sure we would be getting 3-5 weeks per year like Europe does. Most Americans would rather have the money than the time.
International Travel Isn’t the Same
Using International travel as a metric is only so valuable. Drive 500km in Europe, and you will be in a different country, and you might have gone through several to get there. Drive 500km in the US and you probably haven’t left the country, and perhaps even your state. It is easier to show international travel when there are many countries located in a small area. If you look at total distance traveled for vacation, the trips we take are much more similar to Europeans.
We Didn’t Always Need Passports
Prior to 9/11, you didn’t need a passport to travel to Canada, Mexico and much of the Caribbean. You could do a significant amount of international travel in the region without ever needing to get a passport. This was a big reason why Americans never developed the habit of getting a passport. After 9/11, when passport requirements were tightened, most Americans found it easier to just not go to Canada rather than get a passport.
Things are changing. Younger people are putting more emphasis on experiences rather than things. They are creating a new culture and a different set of values. While I still don’t see as many Americans as I do other nationalities, I have seen an uptick in Americans over the last several years, most of whom are in their 20’s. The internet has made it easier to travel, do research, and stay in touch with your friends no matter where you are. You are seeing more people opting for camper vans than houses.
It might take several generations, but I have full faith that Americans will eventually put more value on vacation time, and the amount of traveling done by Americans will increase.
UPDATE: As of 2017, there are now 417 National Park Service Sites in the US
Today is the 100th anniversary the National Park Service in the United States.
As many of you might know I’m in the middle of a project to photograph all 59 national parks in the United States. I’m about 75% through with the project and I should be able to finish it sometime in 2017. (I’m also attempting to visit all the national parks in Canada, which is a whole other thing…)
Today I am announcing a new project, to go above and beyond just visiting America’s 59 national parks.
While the national parks are usually considered the highlights of the national park service, the system is much larger than just the 59 places with a “national park” designation. There are national monuments, memorials, battlefields, seashores, lakeshores, preserves, trails, and historic sites.
….and I’m going to visit and photograph all 413 of them!
This isn’t anything new for me. I have been visiting National Park Service sites as far back as the late 90’s when I had to travel for work. I’d bring my National Park Passport with me and visit sites all over the US. Based on my most recent count, which was a while ago, I’ve been to over 150 sites already.
Here are the constraints I’m putting on myself for the purpose of the project. They are similar to what I’ve done for my national parks and UNESCO World Heritage Site projects:
Any sites I visited before 2007, will be revisited. This is actually a rather hefty number as over 100 of the NPS sites I’ve been to were before I started traveling full time. Thankfully, many of them are in a dense area around Washington DC and New York City.
I will take at least one representative photo at each site. Some sites, like the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, are really small. Some, like on the Mall in Washington DC, are just statues. Nonetheless, I should be able to get at least one decent photo from each place I visit.
Each visit is to be a meaningful visit. This is very vague I realize. My intent is that the goal isn’t just to take a photo or get a passport stamp. I’ll try to have an experience like what a normal visitor might have, which includes going to the visitor center (if there is one), watching a film, talking to a ranger, and exploring the site. The sites are all very different from each other, so what might constitute a meaningful visit in Northern Alaska will be very different for an urban park in Washington DC.
I will walk at least one mile out and back on each national trail. I am aware that this is only a tiny fraction of the size of most trails, but I’m not trying to hike every inch of every trail in the US. That would be over a year of walking. For most trails, I’m assuming I park my car at a trailhead, walk out for at least a mile, and then walk back.
I will not be collecting passport stamps. I always forget to bring my passport. I’ve purchased 3 of them over the years because I visit a place when I didn’t have my passport. I’m just going to forego it entirely and just focus on visiting and taking photos.
This is a big undertaking and it will take me years to complete. That being said, I’m well on my way there already. Even with the rules I’ve placed upon myself, I’ll probably be well over 100 by the time I visit my 59th national park next year.
Much of this will consist of doing regional road trips throughout the US: fly into a city, rent a car, and drive to the NPS sites in a region. I’m sure there will be a few big road trips as well. Unlike full blown national parks, it is entirely possible to visit multiple sites in a single day as many of them are quite small and close together (again, New York and Washington DC).
I’m revisiting sites I visited in the past simply because of photography. I didn’t have a camera back then and I’d like to be able to share the images of all the places on the website.
I will not be the first person to accomplish this. According to the National Park Travelers Club, there have been 43 people who have visited all 413 National Park Service sites. Fewer than the number of people who have visited every country on Earth. I’m quite sure that by the end of the project several more people will have completed it, and the number of sites will probably be more than 413. (I remember it being in the 390’s back when I started visiting them in the 90’s)
I’ll try to announce trips on social media before I embark on them, so I can do meet-ups in the various cities across the US that I’ll be visiting. For some of the more urban sites, I’ll also be arranging small group trips as well.
A few weeks ago I flew through the Istanbul Airport on the way to Kazkhstan, just a few days after the recent terrorist attack which took place there.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of the recent attacks, but at the same time, had I not heard about the events on the news, I never would have known that anything had happened.
The recent attacks in Istanbul are just the latest in a series of attacks which have targeted Europe this year. France has been subject to several major attacks as has Belgium. Lesser attaks with attribution to terrorist groups have happened in Germany, and there have been serveral other plots which have been foiled.
This has forced many people to rethink their travel plans and start to question if they should be traveling to Europe.
Allianz Travel Insurance recently released ther Vacation Confidence Index which documented American’s attitudes towards terriosm and their travel planning. They found the following:
86% are concerned about terrorists attacks while on vacation abroad
22% say that the threat of terrorism has influenced their travel plans
6% have cancelled trips
5% have changed locations
4% have changed dates
3% have changed accommodations
3% have changed modes of transportation
3% have purchased travel insurance
The data seems to indicate that a significant, but not overwhelming number of people have been shaken enough by recent event to change their travel plans to some extent. However, it doesn’t mean that people are abandoning travel.
The data of actual trips taken seems to confirm to some extent what the survey suggested. In a previous survey done by Allianz where they looked at the travel booking by Americans for the summer of 2016 showed the following:
Trips to Istanbul are down 43.7% from 2015
Trips to Brussels are down 30.4%
Trips to Frankfurt are down 22.9%
Paris saw a 0.6% increase
Dublin, Athens, Amsterdam and Lisbon all saw increases of over 40%
Europe as a whole saw a 9.3 percent increase
The data is very interesting on several levels. First, travel to Europe overall increased. I have no doubt that it would have been higher absent the terror attacks, I have to believe that the strong dollar was a stronger pull than the threat of terrorism was a push. Second, people seem to be able to differentate between cities and countries in Europe, and not painting with broad brush. The biggest drops in travel are in cities which have seen recent terrorist attacks. Surprisingly, Frankfurt saw a decrease in travel, even though there had been no terrorist attacks in the city in over 5 years.
The cities which saw large increases in travelers were those who have been absent from the headlines.
Should You Be Concerned About Terrorism?
All of this really begs the question, should travelers be concerned about terrorism? While it is clearly impacting travel decisions, that doesn’t mean that the decision is rational.
First, I don’t blame people for being concrned. As I mentioned above, when I was in the Istanbul airport, the though crept though my mind. The threat of terrorism isn’t zero. It clearly is something that can happen, and to that extent should at least be on your radar.
The threat of being a victim in a terrorist attack is exceedingly small. Concerns about it are amplified because we see it on the news. The more we hear about terrorist attacks, the more worried we get. We forget, however, that we are likely to hear about every terrorist attack, where as most other dangers to travelers are never reported at all.
(Note: to get US fatalities overseas, just subtract the total number of fatalities by the number in the US)
Over the last decade on average 5.5 Americans we’re killed by terrorist attacks each year outside of the United States.
To put that into perspective, from 2003 to 2010, 1,820 Americans died in traffic accidents outside of the United States. That averages out to 1 American being killed every 36 hours in a traffic accident, and it represents close to a third of all overseas deaths.
While the data in this case is specific to Americans, it applies the same to other foreign travelers. Terrorism as a threat to travelers is dwarfed by traffic accidents, yet most people do not have a fear or traffic accidents, nor will they take that into consideration when making travel plans.
While terrorism is something you should be aware of, it is far down the list of actual threats to travelers. 32.3 million people visit Paris every year and even with recent terrorist attacks, your odds of being a victim are on a par with winning the lottery.
To be sure you should take safety precautions anywhere you travel, but you shouldn’t let the threat of terrorism ruin your vacation. I suggest doing the following:
Take what the media says with a big grain of salt. Terroist attacks are tragic events. There is no doubt about that. However, don’t let the 24 hour news cycle determine your thinking. Fear sells, because fear causes people to buy newspapers and watch TV news.
Put risks into perspective. The more you understand the data and the real threats, the better decisions you will make. Worrying about ISIS will do less for your safety than picking a taxi which is safe and in good condition.
Use common sense. Terrorists tend to attack crowded places. One of my big travel rules is to avoid nightclubs and other crowded places. This has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with pickpockets, scams, fires and getting drugged. Nonetheless, the things which can keep you safe generally on the road will help you to decrease your risk of being in a terrorist attack.
In a few days, I’m going to be flying to the Balkans where the AdventureNext conference will be taking place in Ohrid, Macedonia. In addition to attending the conference, I’ll be renting a car and visiting some of the nearby countries which I haven’t been to before.
I’ve been to some of the countries in the Balkans, but not all of them. It is one of the few places in Europe which I haven’t explored in depth. My goal is to visit some UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo, in addition to Macedonia. The driving distances aren’t that large in the region, but the mountains and condition of the roads in some places might make driving a bit slower than it might otherwise take.
My previous experience in the region consisted of driving along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and then doing some day trips out of Dubrovnik to Mostar, Bosnia, and Kotor, Montenegro. So, there is still a lot for me to see and explore.
Many people have a negative perception of the region because of the war which took place in the 1990’s. Since the end of the war, there hasn’t really been anything to replace that image in people’s minds, so that is still the dominant perception. Everyone I know who has been to the Balkans recently has reported that it was safe and there is little to worry about in terms of crime or violence.
To put this in perspective, the United States ranks 99th at 4.20 per 100,000. So with the exception of Albania (which is still safer than the US), all of the countries have murder rates approximately 1/2 to 1/3 that of the US.
Nonetheless, I still have my travel insurance policy. I always do. Because I get my annual policy through Allianz Travel Insurance, I never have to worry about purchasing it before my trip. I know I have it for every trip I take for the entire year.
Other than basic things like lost luggage and delayed flights, the biggest safety concern I have in this region is the same one I have in most countries: traffic accidents. Traffic accidents are the number one cause of death and injury amongst travelers in almost every country. In the Balkans, I have to especially aware because I’m going to be driving, and because I’m going to be driving in a mountainous region.
The photography should be great. I’ve seen great images from other photographers who have visited the region, and the photos I’ve taken from my previous, brief visits have always performed well.
As usual, the first images will appear on Instagram and Facebook while I’m traveling. Make sure to follow me there if you
Disclaimer: I work as an ambassador for Allianz Global Assistance (AGA Service Company) and receive financial compensation.
If you grew up during the 90’s, or if you were just around for it, you might remember a catchy tune sung by Yakko Warner of the Animaniacs. That song recounted all the nations of the world in one fast-paced list.
Ethiopia is a wonderful country with pleasant temperatures and friendly people. I enjoyed the food, the people, and the sites I visited on my recent trip there. I’ll certainly be returning at some point in the future.
However, every rule has an exception. The Danakil Depression, which is in the northeastern corner of the country near Eritrea and Djibouti, is that exception.
It is a dangerous, hellish place with some of the highest temperatures on Earth. It is dry and dusty. During the three days I was there I saw temperatures hit 46C twice (115F) and many times the dust was blowing so hard that we couldn’t see other vehicles in our small caravan. Few people live here, and those who do, do so by raising goats and camels who eat the few plants that can grow there. Toss on top of that a local separatist movement which has kidnapped tourists in the past, and you have an environment which demands respect.
In this environment is a place called Erat Ale, which is the embodiment of hell for some people. It is an open lake of molten rock, spewing noxious gasses. It is literally fire and brimstone.
On the surface, this is a story of hiking to Erat Ale. However, it is just as much a story about preparedness, information, getting proper hydration, and selecting a good tour company.
Our trip to Ethiopia was organized by the Ethiopian Mission to the UN and by the newly formed Ethiopian Tourism Organization. Like many developing countries, Ethiopia would love to bring in more tourism, which can have a dramatic impact on their economy. Like most countries, they organize press trips where journalists are invited to share what they see with the public. That is the type of trip I was on.
On our schedule, day 5 had listed, “Camp visit and stay overnight at Erta’ale watching the dramatic lava lake.” That was it. From the description I assumed that we would just drive up to the volcano, perhaps walk a bit, and then we would photograph the lava for an hour or so, before heading back to camp.
As it turned out, this was not the case.
In the morning, before we left our hotel in Mekele, we were told we would be walking for 3 hours, but it wasn’t clear if it was 3-hours there or 3-hours round trip. No one could really tell us anything. This lack of information was going to be the theme for this adventure.
After 4 hours of driving on paved roads and another 3 hours of off-roading, we arrived at the camp about 2 hours before sunset. It was here we were informed that we wouldn’t start hiking until after the sun had set. While this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do given the high temperatures, we had no clue we would be doing it.
As we were waiting for the sun to set, the tour company which arranged everything served us soup and……beer. At the time, none of us really thought twice about the beer, but as we were several hours into the hike, the absurdity of serving beer before a hike in the desert became obvious.
After sunset, we set out and I, being the photographer of the group, had the heaviest bag by far. In addition to my camera gear, I brought along my tripod which was a must if I was going to get any decent shots of the volcano at night. The only thing which was told to us by our guides was that we should bring along “some water”. More on that later.
Despite hiking in the dark, it was still very warm. I estimate the temperatures were around 95F (35C) with a very warm, dry wind hitting us the entire time. The rocks were still hot from the heat of the day wind was blowing that heat in our faces.
The total distance from the camp to the volcano turned out to be around 14km (9 miles) each way, with a climb of about 500m (1,500 ft) in elevation.
The pace we were on was also quite brisk. The guides were all at the front of the group and walked at their own pace. Being local to the area, they were accustomed to the conditions and had made this trek many times. They paid almost no attention to their guests at the end of the line, and at one point we stopped to rest just to see if our guides would notice we weren’t there. It was quite awhile before they noticed.
It was about 3/4 of the way through when I started to feel the onset of heat exhaustion and dehydration. I was getting chills and started to get dizzy. I was incredibly thirsty and the wisdom of serving beer before this hike now became evident. Alcohol dehydrates you. Toss in the high temperatures, the wind, and the exertion from a 14k, uphill hike across a lava field, and it was sort of a perfect storm of dehydration. The only thing which mitigated it was the fact that this was all taking place in the dark.
While I was the worst off of our group, other were starting to get dehydrated as well. We sort of staged a general strike so we could rest and wait for the supply camels to catch up with us. It was during this break that several things came to light. First, the guides had no real concern for any of us. Not a single “how are you doing?” or “are you OK?”. Second, none of the guides had any first aid training, nor did anyone have so much as a basic first aid kit with them. Not even so much as a band-aid. Third, they had no radio. If something did happen, they had absolutely no way to communicate to get help.
It was around this time I began wondering how the hell I could get evacuated out of there if that had to be done.
I get my travel insurance through Allianz Global Assistance. They have a giant war room and a global team of people whose job it is, is to get travelers out of trouble if they are injured or in danger. Despite the great job they do, I was starting to wonder if I had gotten myself into a situation which even they couldn’t get me out of?
I was hours away from the nearest road, let alone the nearest town or settlement, in one of the most extreme environments on Earth, with no way to communicate with anyone. Ethiopia is a developing country, so it isn’t as if they have rescue helicopters waiting somewhere to rescue tourists.
In the end, the camels showed up with more water. They put me on one of the camels to go the remaining 30 minutes, and everyone else walked rested and hydrated.
The lava pool itself was pretty cool, however, they also didn’t manage to tell us about the noxious fumes which could choke you, or damage your lungs if you breathed it. Another separate group which went up the same night we did were supplied with gas masked. We weren’t even given so much as a warning.
We woke up at 4am to walk back down to our vehicles. The walk back wasn’t nearly as bad as it had cooled down considerably by then, and we were walking downhill. We all also had ample water for the return trip. I did fall on the way back and badly skinned my knee on the lava stone. There is still a massive scab on the right knee as a write this.
This entire episode taught me several important lessons.
Pick a Good Tour Operator. We just took it on faith that our guides knew what they were doing. While they knew how to get to the volcano, they didn’t know much else about actually guiding people. They weren’t trained nor prepared. It is something you don’t really know the importance of until you experience a bad one.
Ask Questions. We should have asked more questions about what we were going to be doing, so it wouldn’t have caught us by surprise. I’m not sure we would have gotten answers, but some of the blame belonged on us.
Prepare. Even if we had known what we were getting ourselves into, we needed to be prepared for the excursion. That meant having enough water, proper hiking boots, etc. Make sure you have basic first aid supplies and if possible, some sort of communications.
Respect the environment. I came away from this was a whole lot of respect for the Danakil Depression. This is a serious place and not be messed around with. I’ve seen other warnings around the world, and often I didn’t give them the attention they deserve. People have died recently in the Grand Canyon from dehydration. Despite being a popular national park, you can still suffer consequences if you don’t respect where you are.
Always have travel insurance. While getting compensation for canceled trips and flights is an important part of having travel insurance, having a team of people who can get you our of trouble is by far the most important aspect of it. After we were out of the Danakil Depression I later found out that there was an Army base with a helicopter which was within flying distance. If something catastrophic had happened, there could have been an evacuation, even if it would have taken a while for the helicopter to arrive.
Know your limits. Because we weren’t used to the extreme environment, I think everyone in our group could have benefited from going at a slower pace with more rests. Myself the most.
My trip to Erta Ale will probably effect how I travel for the rest of my life. I have no desire to get in such a situation again. For most of my trips, the environment isn’t something you need to obsess over. However, I have upcoming trips planned to the Arctic and other places with extreme environments. You can be sure I’ll be more prepared and informed before I go into those areas.
During the last 9 years of traveling around the world, I’ve been to over 110 countries, and many more territories and subnational units.
However, those 110 countries represent some of the smallest countries in the world. I began traveling 2007 by island hopping across the Pacific, visiting places like Samoa, Tonga, Micronesia and the Solomon Islands. I went through most of the Caribbean visiting places like Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda. In Europe, I visited all the microstates: San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Monaco.
However, I haven’t been to many of the largest countries in the world. I haven’t been to Russia, China, Brazil, or India.
There is no particular reason I’ve avoided any of these places. It is just that there are 200-some countries in the world and someone has to be first and someone has to be last.
India, in particular, has been an issue for me because I have so many readers from India. Probably a week doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t ask me I have been been to India, or when I would be going.
Several times I’ve intended to visit India, but other things came up and I never got around to it.
This year, however, G Adventures launched their new partnership with National Geographic: National Geographic Journeys With G Adventures. I’ll be going on one of the first trips as I travel through Kerala in Southern India.
Prior to my trip I contacted the folks at Allianz Travel Insurance to ask them about travel in India and what sort of things I, as a traveler, should be on the lookout for.
Despite the recent news about attacks on foreigners (mostly women) and tales of the famous Delhi Belly, the thing which resulted in the most insurance claims was traffic accidents.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise because the US State Department has long said that traffic accidents are the #1 cause of deaths and injuries for travelers. India is certainly no exception. So, wear your seat belt and pay attention when crossing the street.
I’ll be experiencing quite a bit over the next few weeks and will be posting updates here on my blog, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Last week 17 tourists were killed by gunmen in Tunisia. You probably heard about it as it was all over the news.
You probably remember the case of Natalee Holloway who disappeared in 2005 in Aruba. You remember it because it was all over the news.
Every year there are one or two news stories about some British or Australian citizen facing execution in a Southeast Asian country for smuggling drugs. When this happens it is all over the news.
Certainly everyone can remember the Malaysia Air flight 370 which disappeared, or more recently the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525.
Tourist tragedy has become one of the go to stories for any cable news outlet. Travel tragedy can fill up days or even weeks of a 24-hour news cycle. When these travel related stories aren’t in the news, there is usually some other catastrophe which is playing out in the media. ISIS, ebola, fighting in Ukraine, are just some of the most recent examples of the media feeding fears about the rest of the world.
When I was recently in Haiti, I asked many people what they knew about Haiti and they didn’t know much beyond natural disasters and civil strife.
Four years ago I wrote a post titled “9 Ways I Break Conventional Travel Wisdom”. One of the items (which I wasn’t proud of at the time) was that I traveled for a significant time without travel insurance. I got lucky that nothing serious happened to me while I was traveling without insurance. I have several friends who have had serious accidents while they were on the road, some of which required evacuation.
For the last 3 years I’ve been traveling fully insured. Given how much I travel, I get an annual policy which covers all of my trips for a given year. I now make sure that my policy gets renewed at the beginning of every year and that not a day goes by where I don’t have coverage.