In my recent travels I have been astonished to discover a fear of foreigners to travel to the United States. While not shared by everyone, this fear is openly expressed by a much greater percentage of people I come across than not. This attitude seems to be ever more prevalent in the seasoned travelers as well as those of a younger generation.
Perhaps only second to hearing of a reluctance to travel to my country, was hearing the notion that United States citizens neither travel nor hold passports. While I have a strong opinion on the first, the second topic is something I have very little knowledge of. Both of these ideas deserve a thorough examination as they impact the impression of the United States abroad as well as give a clue to the forces currently traversing through our society.
While not initially surprised at the hesitation to enter US borders given the strict security and visa requirements, the outright refusal and paranoia gave me reason to give this a second look. During my recent time in Ireland I heard from many seasoned travelers who hail from others counties in Europe, yet live, work and raise famlies in the Emerald Isle. Insights into their recent changes in attitude toward traveling to the US were telling.
Most in their mid 20’s now, had always felt a desire, even until recent years to visit and eventually live in the US. New York once a dream destination, they now say, given the politics and current economic climate does not hold the same alure to settling down. This has been much the same response from others we have encountered on the road.
A recent host from Spain expressed great frustration and alienation at the Visa process just to travel to New York for a few months to study English. Aside from these feelings of resentment for the Visa process we have encountered several people who, while haven gotten to know them personally, still expressed such a disgust or outright fear that they completely refuse to entertain the thought of US travel. These feelings run so deep that despite a great interest to share in the experience that is the United States, or discover its diversity of people these individuals chose to opt out, usually for South America. Some research can probably bring clarity to these attitudes and opinions, while lending them either a voice of credibility or unfounded criticism.
How many crossing the Border?
There has been in large part a drastic decline in the percentage of foreign travelers who chose to come onto our shores. Since 2000 and certainly 2001, post 9/11 and the Patriot Act, there has been a precipitous decline. In 2000 the United States had an 18 percent share in International Long Haul Tourism, which has dropped to a paltry 12 percent.
While the number of visitors to the United States has increased in recent years, this is a natural consequence of the surge in international travel. The United States has not kept up to pace with the rest of the world as a travel destination. According to a recent report
for growth in world tourims in 2011, it has kept up with its 2010 increase despite record decline in 2009. The United States has shown poorer performance compared to other countries.
Why You No Come to Our Country?
There have been many reasons cited for the decline in interest in travel to the United States. These have been expressed by many of the travelers and foreign citizens alike during my travels. Two AlterNet articles highlight interesting perspectives, here and here. Among some of the reasons and ideas cited are the growing anti-foreigner sentiment of the American populace (thus the renaming of French Fries to Freedom fries under the Bush administration despite a long cherished cultural link between the French and American peoples), increased deportation and surveillance of even documented resident and non-resident aliens as well as illegal working conditions of foreign students by US corporations.
Viewed through a foreign lens the US obsession (according to main stream media) with issues such as the Mosque at Ground Zero (not actually ground zero) as well as religious doctrine entering the theater that is politics only add as a deterrent. This compounds the already strict visa regulation process, increased background checks and all too frequent invasive security checks upon entering the country. All too often I am questioned about the American obsession with the right to bear arms.
To which I can only mumble some answer about personal liberties, keeping our government. at bay and keeping the Red Coats in check. I can only assume that these reasons and images, some valid some not, are enough to keep foreigners from hoping over the Pond.
Do Americans Even Have Passports?
I hear this question over and over again. The often cited fact that Americans as a people and nation, not only do not travel, but have no interest in the rest of the world. As always this is a mixed bag. The answer is ‘Yes’ statistically most Americans do not have passports. This is however a simplified answer to some amazing trends if examined in more detail.
In recent years the number of Americans obtaining passports has skyrocketed. In a little over 10 years, from 1996 to 2007 the number of passports being issued has almost more than tripled from 5.5 million to 16.2 million. Despite the recent decline in 2008 to 2010, mostly due to the financial crisis (probably), the overall trend is still positive.
The number of US passports in circulation has nearly risen exponentially in recent decades as well. In 22 years from 1989 to 2011 the number of valid passports in circulation has increased 1300%. Now I don’t have the statistics for comparison to other countries, but that seems like a thirst for the world to me. So while only 1 in 3 Americans hold a passport, a laughable comparison to Europe, it seems we are making great strides.
These number are enough for to enlighten my fellow travelers, happened upon locals and neigh sayers of US cultural intelligence. Now it would seem all that is left is to extend this to our foreign policy.
What We can Learn
As the world becomes more intermingled there are hopes and dangers that the United States should be aware of. There are two distinct directions that can be plotted for the course into the near future. One takes the US into an era of cultural stagnation, a fearful gaze onto the world through our border fences and Orwellian security state. The other takes hold of growing cultural and social Renaissance that is emerging in recent years and months.
If we choose to see a potential enemy in every foreign face, reject fresh or alternate ideas and schools of thought, refuse to offer the olive branch of peace before the jackboot of military intervention we doom ourselves to alienation and world wide irrelevance. Many a world power and empire has gone down this path before.
There is great potential as there has always been in the American ethos. And yet I see even more potential now that I can ever point to in my nascent view of history. If I remember correctly the inscription on the Statue of Liberty (Gift from the French) is:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
This is something I think is worth shooting for again. I leave you with the well heeled advice of Rick Steves, a link to his video presentation: Travel as a Political Act.
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