Are Americans scared to travel abroad?

Over at Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site, Matt takes Americans to task for their well-known reluctance to travel abroad, citing the oft-repeated statistic that only 15% of Americans own passports. He attributes the dearth of US travel abroad to a number of factors, including American fear and ignorance of the rest of the world, but I’m not sure these go very far in explaining the real reasons behind the phenomenon. So why don’t Americans travel more?

For starters, Americans only receive (or demand) about two weeks off in vacation time per year, compared to a month or more in many European countries. Now, perhaps this is the fault of the American worker, who doesn’t value his or her leisure time enough to demand more vacation time, or maybe it all goes back to the famous Puritan work ethic. Either way, I simply don’t think it’s true that Americans are afraid to travel to, say, Australia or China.

But Matt disagrees: “Americans are just scared of the world. I mean really scared. Maybe even petrified. In this post 9/11 world (even before it), Americans have been taught the world is a big scary place. There are terrorists outside every hotel waiting to kidnap you. People don’t like you because you are American. The world is violent. It’s poor. It’s dirty. It’s savage. Only Canada and Europe are O.K. but, if you go there, they will still be rude to you because you are American.” This is course the stereotype, but do lots of Americans still feel this way?

So if Americans aren’t scared, why don’t they travel abroad more? Well, America is also one of the most varied, multi-cultured countries in the world, so perhaps Americans don’t feel the need to travel beyond their borders. From natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, the Florida Everglades, and Denali National Park, to vibrant, multi-ethnic cities like New York, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco, Americans can see a wide range of people and places without ever crossing a national border.

It’s entirely natural and expected that Americans don’t travel as much as, say, Germans, because (and I hope I’m not stepping on any toes here) America is a larger and more varied place. Add to that the extra cost and time it takes Americans to travel abroad, and I’d say we’re getting close to an answer.

Matt also points to cultural ignorance as one of the reasons behind the relative lack of overseas travel. This explanation has special appeal to any American traveler (like myself) who’s ever been to Prague only to return and hear the question, “So, did you learn any German?”

Matt calls it cultural ignorance, and he may well be right. But I prefer to think that Americans are simply comfortable with their lives as they are and don’t feel the need to travel abroad. And perhaps they’ve (okay, we’ve) been chanting “We’re number 1!” for so long that they’ve forgotten what else is out there. Admittedly, my preferred explanations– comfort and incuriousness– may not show Americans in the best light, but it’s a lot better than calling them scared and culturally ignorant.

Bottom line: I wish my fellow Americans would travel abroad more, but only for the same reasons I wish more Moroccans and Russians and Indians would travel abroad more: because the world is an endlessly interesting, stimulating, and eye-opening place, and seeing more of it only makes us better.