By Steven Doerhoff, Guest Writer
After traveling abroad for the first time in 2014, I wondered why Americans are so reluctant to do the same. In many cases, they don’t even have the ambition to do so. When I broke the news to family and friends about my travel plans, I was met with confused looks and questions like, “Why would you want to do that?” and “Are you sure it’s safe over there?” When I returned home, it seemed impossible to share my experiences and insights in a way that they could truly understand, brushing off stories about times I considered to be life-changing with a “cool,” and then quickly switching the subject to whatever happened at the bar the night before.
In such cases, it’s not that they do not care, but that they cannot relate. Traveling abroad is something that they do not consider a priority or that they think it is unattainable. American culture needs to value international travel as an essential experience—or risk becoming even further detached from the world outside our borders.
Running into a fellow American traveler was an extremely rare occurrence during the four months I spent wandering through South East Asia. It seemed everywhere I went there were Brits, Aussies, and French (among many other travelers from other European and Asian nations), but Americans were scarce on that side of the globe. Why was this?
One obvious reason is that most Americans simply do not have the means to travel. Of the approximately 320 million people that are citizens of this country, about 132 million valid passports were in circulation in 2016 according to statistics from the U.S. State Department. That means only about 40 percent of U.S. citizens hold a passport. Compare this to a 2011 census of England and Wales, where it was shown that 76 percent of the population had a valid passport.
A lack of free time is surely another reason more Americans aren’t leaving the country for vacation. It is no secret that the U.S. is an extremely overworked country and doesn’t treat its workers as well as other industrialized nations. The Center for Economic and Policy Research released a slightly depressing graph in 2013 that showed the amount of mandatory paid vacation leave by country. Our European working class counterparts enjoy significantly more time off than Americans. French and U.K. workers receive 30 and 28 mandatory paid vacation days respectively, while Italian and German employees each get 20. Even our neighbor to the north, Canada, requires employers to give their workers 10 paid days off. How many days are American workers required to receive, you ask? Zero.
Travel in the U.S. is often thought of as a luxury or something that is an option for only the rich or retirees, but this is a myth. From my own experience, I could live modestly in South East Asia on $20 to $30 a day, far less than the cost of one night at a hotel near a popular U.S. vacation spot. Of course, I wasn’t holed up in a lavish hotel or resort lounging by the pool but instead chose inexpensive shared dorms near local neighborhoods. This gave me a better opportunity to immerse myself in the culture while interacting with locals and fellow travelers that had a world view unlike my own. When you’re able to get the need for comfortability out of your head (which is the main selling point for the typical American vacation), you’ll discover you don’t need to be a millionaire to explore exotic destinations often thought to be reserved for the latter part of one’s life. Experiences that have become some of my most treasured memories arose from uncomfortable situations. The cost of travel isn’t so much about where you travel; it’s how you travel that determines the expense and what you get out of it.
The value of travel is priceless, and I wish it was thought of as so by more of the people in the U.S. One 4-month trip completely changed everything I thought about the world, but unfortunately, the worldview of most Americans will continue to be made up of a 5-minute segment on the news, casting what they see onto the people of an entire culture. I learned the world isn’t filled with terrorist attacks, mass killings and hostage situations, as the media so often suggest, but that it is filled with many people who share similar values and principles that we as Americans do. Travel allows one to start seeing people not for their differences but for their similarities. Love, friendship, happiness, and prosperity are universal ideas that drive people of all nationalities, and if we want to avoid basing our opinions on the insufficient information and blatant stereotypes we see in the media, we need to get out in the world and develop our own individual conclusions.
The first destination of my 2014 trip was Bangkok, Thailand. A few months before my arrival, a scandal involving the prime minister of Thailand at the time, Yingluck Shinawatra, caused anti-government protests for her removal from office on charges of corruption. Her supporters clashed with protesters during these rallies, with some confrontations turning violent. Despite the U.S. State Department warning against all nonessential travel to Thailand, I bought my ticket and packed my bag. Within a week of arriving, the Thai military had removed Shinawatra from office, taken control of the government, and implemented martial law and a nationwide curfew. Certainly, 10-second videos in the media back home of armored military vehicles and soldiers carrying assault rifles on the streets of Bangkok spurred the emails I received from family and friends asking if I was okay. Meanwhile, I was on an island in Southern Thailand surrounded by the Andaman Sea, cranking the throttle of a motorbike as I sped down a dirt road towards a hidden beach. Their concern was somewhat funny to me as I looked at my surroundings.