US Passport

If I could count the number of times over the years that this exact sequence took place:

It always starts with the default question between travelers.

European Girl: “So, where are you from?”

Greg: “I’m American.”

European Girl: “Ohhhh! Really? I don’t meet many Americans at all. I don’t think that many Americans travel. In fact, I heard that only 10% of Americans have passports…”

Some travelers push it to offensive levels, but more often they usually smooth things over with something like:

“Well…I guess you guys don’t have to travel. You’ve got SUCH a big country to explore there! I’m planning a trip to America…”

When I was fresh out of a corporate job and completely naive, what I really wanted to say is, “Look, sweetheart, we only get two weeks of vacation. Not the 6 or 8 weeks that you enjoy. Paid hiatuses are a very rare thing and few jobs are going to wait for you to finish your gap year. Oh, and we have to cross the f*cking planet to get to Europe or Asia…and that ain’t cheap. And let’s not forget the marvels that our pitiful amount of vacation and early heart attacks have given the world…that airplane you flew in on, the taxi you took from the airport, that phone in your hand, the electricity keeping these lights on…”

But usually I would just smile.

And given that I only met two Americans on my first year away, I was starting to believe that they (we) don’t travel. I didn’t mind at first. Being an anomaly can work in your favor. I was often the only American staying in a place, and so they referred to me strangely offhand as The American. It was a bizarre flavor of celebrity status.

“So what are you guys doing later?

“Well…Francois, Sven, The American, and myself are going to go down to the beach party…”

I found out later, after I left Asia, that Americans just travel to different places. Go to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America and you’ll meet way too many Americans. Even though every third person you meet in the Thai islands is often Scandinavian, you don’t meet many in South America. A few, but not many.

So while researching another article for Passport Day coming up this Saturday (March 9), I stumbled across some interesting statistics.

Americans DO travel!

The Department of State reports that there are a record number of US passport holders, and they just keep cranking the things out. That myth that only 10% of Americans have passports may have been true a decade ago, but here are the facts:

In 2012, there were more than 109 million US passports in circulation. That’s roughly 35% of the population, so more than one in three people at least have a passport. I have a feeling that the numbers got a huge boost when passports became required for crossing the borders to Canada and Mexico.

This article from the Huffington Post speculates that number at 42% because of so many foreign-born U.S. residents whom have become citizens and immigrated.

The World Tourism Organization reported that in 2011 Americans came in second for spending on international tourism, just behind those rich Germans.

And so, the next time that a traveler tells you that only 10% of Americans have passports, now you know the truth. Whether they use them or not, well, that may be a different story.

But think for a minute why so many Europeans, aside from coming out of a travel culture initially, hold passports. With so many opportunities for new food, experiences, and culture just a short train or drive away, it’s no big deal to pop into a neighboring country for a weekend.

Want some French food? Why not…it’s only four hours away. I can drive for four hours and still be in my same state! Before the EU fully granted the right to move freely in 2004, passports were sometimes essential for quick excursions.

I will say that Americans, in general, do not historically have a travel culture. You could use the excuse that we’ve got a big country with a diverse geography, enough to keep busy for a while. But I have a different theory.

Unless you’re 100% Native American, pretty much everyone in this country immigrated from somewhere else; fairly recently, I might add. I’m guessing that after spending three months below decks on a rat-infested boat to get here, the last thing that my Irish family had in mind was setting off again. The travel bug out of their systems, they were probably a little preoccupied with trying to establish themselves in a new world, and put food on the table.

That lack of interest in crossing oceans and general satisfaction in just having a home and food to eat were probably passed down generation to generation.

And besides, have you eaten the food on an American-operated airplane? That’s good enough reason to stay at home.

Ironically, Department of State passport agencies will be closed on our national  Passport Day this Saturday. Apparently the government is out of money; that’s my fault…I haven’t filed taxes yet.

By the way, if you don’t have a passport, you should get one. You may save the $60 expedite fee in case a trip pops up later, and besides…it’s the cool thing to do!