Last week I was in a meeting with a group of women that I’m going cruising with in October. During the meeting, the leader asked who didn’t have a current passport. More then half the group of about 20 women raised their hands. It’s an indication that a lot of Americans are not getting around much.

The percentage of Americans holding passports has increased over the last two years, but that’s mostly due to rule changes that require passports to travel to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. Most Americans still haven’t gone beyond the country’s borders to see the world around them. A lot of reasons have been cited for this. Some include the diversity of the country. The US has nearly every kind of natural environment around from the tropics of Hawaii to the deserts of the southwest to the frozen tundra of Alaska to the mountains of the Appalachians.

Size is another issue. From my hometown in Orlando I can fly over 3,000 miles to Alaska or Hawaii and still not have left the country.  The nearest country to me is Cuba- over 300 miles away. In comparison, a 300-mile drive through Europe would cross through as many as 3 or 4 different countries.

Cost is a factor. A quick check of FareCompare shows that from Orlando it would cost about $500 to get to Europe, between $400-600 to get to South America, and over $1,000 to get to the Middle East and much of Asia and Australia. And that doesn’t include other expenses such as lodging or meals. The cost of getting a new passport is about $100- a deal breaker for some, especially in today’s economy.

Language is a barrier. Most US schools at best require students to take just one class in a foreign language- usually Spanish or French. One class isn’t enough for most people to become proficient in a language. So the idea that traveling to another country, particularly one that doesn’t speak a Romantic language, can create a lot of fear for some people.

It isn’t part of the US culture to travel internationally. In Europe, students are encouraged to take a “gap year” to travel before entering the workforce. And even after getting a job, most European businesses offer generous vacation policies that make it easy to take several weeks off to travel. In the US, some colleges do encourage students to travel. But it’s not a strong part of the culture. Plus, most US companies’ vacation policies are nowhere near as generous as their European counterparts, which make it hard to get time off to travel.

So with all these obstacles, why should Americans bother to leave the US at all? The answer is simple. To develop a understanding of the culture and attitudes of other people. The US is not an island and isolating itself from the rest of the world puts the country in danger of misunderstandings and miscommunications that could jeopardized the standing of the US in the world.

At work today, one of my co-workers was complaining about how a Japanese-designed switcher wasn’t very useful in broadcasting American sports. Another co-worker explained that the difference was due to how the Japanese preferred quality over quantity. The Japanese would do things like have people operating the switcher for only 10 minutes at a time, as opposed to the US where one person could be running the switcher for several hours at a time. The Japanese way would minimize errors that occur since people would only have to concentrate on one small piece of a show. But that way also requires much more manpower and creates more overhead for a business. In the US, stations prefer to hire fewer people to get the job done. More errors might result, but it’s acceptable in order to achieve lower operating costs.

None of my co-workers have been to Japan, but if any of us had been, then the design philosophy behind the equipment would make more sense since we would have a better understanding of the culture.

Unfortunately, there’s no one solution that will magically make Americans want to get passports and get out more. But individuals have the power to go out and travel and in turn inspire others to do the same. People can also do things like push employers to offer more generous vacation policies and encourage students to travel after school and before working. Together, individuals can change the culture to a more travel-friendly one.

For another perspective on this topic, Nomadic Matt wrote a great essay called “Why Americans Don’t Travel Overseas”.

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