BY: ARIEL HSIEH | FEBRUARY 9, 2014
While many take advantage of opportunities to study and volunteer abroad during college, whether it be for leisure or adding another experience on their resume, very few Americans actually engage in international travel which is surprising considering that in the US, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is $38,001 per year, much higher than the average of $23,047 worldwide per year calculated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. According to CNN, only 30% of Americans have passports, and statistics from 2012 reveal that fewer and fewer US residents are interested in international travel, dropping to 9% of all leisure travelers versus 11% the previous year (MMGY Global/Harrison Group 2012 Portrait of American Travelers). Particularly with the recent rise of business-related travel, a result of increasing globalization and neo-liberalism in the international economic-political sphere, coupled with the rise of mass travel for pleasure as an aspect of modernism, one has to wonder why US residents are shying away from international travel and what possible effects this trend has on Americans and the greater development of American culture.
One possible, and probable, explanation would be the American work culture that has resulted with the adoption of a capitalist economic system. Most Americans follow the same life pattern in which they invest in education (high school, then college) and then work in order to pay off their investment and earn even more in the future. Unlike places like New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom, among many other Western nations, which promote taking time off between major life phases (such as gap years between college and career), similar breaks are not encouraged in the US and can instead be construed as a lack of commitment or work ethic. Our increasingly materialistic culture, fueled by an emphasis on consumerism, has replaced a travel culture that is more often found in countries that emphasize leisure time over making money. The Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) reports that the US is the only nation among advanced economics that does not provide a legal guarantee of paid leave for its workers. In contrast to many European countries such as Spain and Germany which both guarantee 34 days of paid leave and France and Italy that guarantee 31 days, 1 in 4 Americans have no guarantee of paid leave. Those who do are primarily in the private sector, in which the CEPR found that the average number of days of paid leave was 21. This results in a negative cycle in which travel is not valued such that workers receive less vacation days which then makes them unable to take the time to travel and therefore value its benefits.
Another explanation, which is common to others outside the US as well, is the cost and logistics of travelling. It is no surprise that travelling requires physical capital (i.e., money) however it also requires social capital (such as information on where to travel, or friends abroad who can provide housing/guidance) and cultural capital (such as the valuation of travel as a form of personal development). When it comes to money, statistics from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries show that airfare abroad is oftentimes the majority of travel costs for Americans (average air fare/traveler was $1,177). In places such as the EU where travel to and from countries within the union is very cost-effective, there is a greater incentive, or at least lack of deterrence, to travelling abroad. The fact that travelling within the US is much more cost effective than travelling outside and that the US has a wide variety of geography and local culture to explore has created a certain kind of American culture in which international travel has yet to be undertaken and thus valued by the society at large. However, I think the advent of technology that makes travelling and connecting with individuals abroad much more accessible to the general public will have an impact on the future traveling patterns of US residents. As flights become cheaper and sites like couchsurfing.org begin revolutionizing how individuals travel and explore the world, more individuals will have the chance to travel abroad and experience what the world has to offer. Furthermore, as physical capital becomes less of a determinant of travel habits, social and cultural capital will rise in value, benefiting those who have traveled previously and giving those who have not traveled more incentive to do so.
While it may be hard to see the benefits and values of travel within a society that does not greatly value it beyond basic leisure and relaxation, I sincerely urge those who have not yet traveled or made plans to do so, to think about and frame travel in a way that is beneficial both to the individual and society at large. “Travelers are temporary strangers—strangers who have chosen to enter geographically, personal, social, and culturally unfamiliar territory and who confront problems of making it sufficiently familiar to them that it can be managed,” (Greenblat and Gagnon 1983). Despite the limitations that may be causing Americans to shy away from international travel, the experiences of navigating new environments, connecting with diverse individuals, and removing one’s self from a personalized reality into the realities of others have profound and long-lasting effects.
"Direct self-observation does not by any means suffice for self-knowledge. We need history, inasmuch as the past wells up in us in hundreds of ways. Indeed we ourselves are nothing other than what we sense at each instant of that onward flow. For even when we wish to go down to the stream of our apparently ownmost, most personal essence, Heraclitus's statement holds true: one does not step twice into the same river.—The maxim has by now grown stale; yet it is as nourishing and energizing as ever. So too is the maxim that in order to understand history one must search for the living remnants of historical epochs—and do so by traveling. . .” (Neitzsche, Human, All Too Human).