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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)
- Approximately 3.5% of Americans travel internationallly in any given year
- 29% of Americans have never been outside of the United States
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.