Leisure travel is an interesting facet of culture here in America. On one hand, there’s the idea of the family trip. Everyone packed in the car with all the essentials (and another five pounds of junk on top), ready to drive for 30 or 40 hours to go to Disneyland or to visit a beach in Florida.
On the other hand, there is the idea of lone wanderers and lost souls in America; vagabonds and drifters who hitchhike or ride a motorcycle from one coast to the other and back again.
The thing that ties those two perceptions of travel in American culture together is that they are both the realm of the everyman. Everyone has been on one of those family vacations, especially if their family was not the most well off. And the very nature of drifters and hitchhikers means one doesn’t need a lot of money to live that lifestyle.
But when it comes to cultural depictions of travel abroad, it seems that the only reason Americans bust out their passport is either for business or because they are wealthy.
This seems to reflect the underlying assumptions of most Americans that foreign travel is only a possibility when someone else is footing the bill, or you possess so much money that the bill doesn’t even matter.
To a certain extent this portrayal is true. Traveling abroad is expensive. In America it’s cheaper to pay for gas to drive to California than it is to fly there, and if you factor in more people, the cost of flying gets even more ridiculous.
However, this strictly capitalist view of travel misses one very important factor. As an American, traveling to New York or California or Florida may be exciting and a nice change of pace, but at the end of the day all these destinations are still in America.
This means that large numbers of Americans (around 70 percent based on assigned passport numbers) have no plans to ever leave the country and thus will never experience another view of the world. I’m not saying that California is the same as New York, but compared to Paris, Tokyo or Cape Town, the two may as well be as close as Loveland and Fort Collins.
It’s not even just about seeing the different kinds of buildings, eating different foods, visiting cool museums and catching some new sights. Because again, all that can be done simply by visiting a different part of this country.
No, traveling abroad is about bursting the little bubble that so many people seem to float around in, believing that their country is exceptional and every other country is second tier at best. It’s about seeing how despite all our differences; all the strange foods and exotic languages and different histories we are all still fundamentally human.
If America wishes to continue to succeed and partake of the modern, globalized world, it needs a people that are aware of more than just what exists within its own borders. It needs a people not afraid to go out into the world, to face challenges and new situations.
In order to do this though, we need to make travel to foreign lands a national idea and to help provide means for those who wish to travel abroad but may not be able to afford it directly (and no the military doesn’t count).
I’d like to see a revival of passion for the Peace Corps, of groups that help show the world that Americans aren’t Marines with rifles trying to enforce our will on the world, we’re compassionate folks who would rather help build roads and wells.
I know that the economy here and abroad is doing poorly and that this makes travel hard. But I’m running on the assumption that things will get better and when things do recover, I’d like to see the next generation of Americans be willing to step outside our borders and get a fresh view of our world.