Reality Check The 'internationally uninterested' By Richard Turen / July 19, 2012 Share 1 -- It's an old witticism, but one worth repeating here: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Multilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American. Perhaps I should start by trying to destroy an urban myth that I myself have helped perpetuate. Much of the world, it turns out, believes a well-circulated rumor that only 10% of American adults own a passport. I have previously written that, actually, 29% of all American adults have passports. But mea culpa, the real number, according to the most recent data issued by the State Department in January 2011, is actually 35%. The Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 110 million of us are carrying passports, out of a population of 313 million potential travelers. I am rather intrigued by the fact that two-thirds of us are not planning to travel internationally. What does this say about us? Is it laziness, a lack of curiosity or just deep-seated ignorance that leads us to believe that nothing on this earth is as sophisticated, as smart, as clean, as well thought out, as rich, as successful, as fascinating to our children, as moral or as important to the rest of the world as our United States? One of the interesting aspects of the "internationally uninterested" is that when you interview Americans who don't have a passport, 90% say they have no intention of ever getting one. I suspect that may be changing over time, but it will be changing for the wrong reasons; the vast majority of new passport applications will come from those who have suddenly realized that they will need one to enter destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada. Cruise passengers now need passports. This is why we have seen the rise in the number of U.S. passport holders. But I'm not at all sure that this is reason for optimism. The vast majority of newly issued passports are either work-related or are the result of new rules affecting documentation required by our closest neighbors. I have seen nothing that makes me feel there has been a seismic change in the number of Americans who have an interest in visiting any continent aside from their own. Three years ago, in an oft-quoted piece in London's Guardian newspaper, John Patterson wrote that most Americans don't go abroad "because they're ridiculous, paranoid, pathetically insular and grotesquely self-pitying." That seems to me to be a tad strong. It also depends on what particular portion of the U.S. one is referencing. It is essentially wrong because "most Americans" simply can't afford to travel internationally for the purpose of pleasure or their own curiosity. Fly to Paris, add in seven nights at a moderately priced Parisian hotel, then add transfers. You are somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000 for two, and you have not yet added in any formalized sightseeing, entertainment or the single most expensive portion, statistically, of an international vacation: food. Take all of that together and you have a not-very-deluxe, one-week jaunt to Europe that easily approaches $8,000 per couple. The fact is that those of us who ply the international travel trades in the U.S. are dealing with some portion of the one-third of Americans who have passports and an interest in what lies beyond our continental borders plus the means to cover the cost. One could seriously argue that ours is a unique situation. True, just over 60% of all adult Canadians have passports, but they belong to a former empire that they are fond of visiting from time to time. They also like to come to the U.S. for our pancakes. In Britain, 75% of citizens carry passports. But newspaper readership in the U.K. is more than double that in the U.S. The No. 1 news channel in Britain is not the Comedy Channel, as it is here. Perhaps because of their history and involvements in empire-building, the Europeans at least seem to have a travel-based inquisitiveness that has mostly escaped us on this side of the pond. Still, it just doesn't seem fair to beat ourselves up by comparing the number of Americans who travel with the number of Europeans who travel. An international traveler on the other side of the Atlantic just takes the tube out to Gatwick, hops on Ryanair or some other flying-bus company, and $30 or $40 later, voila! He or she is an international traveler. Italians and Spaniards will fly internationally to watch their teams play soccer. It costs more to stay four nights in central Rome than it does to go on a four-night holiday package to, say, Marrakech or the Costa Brava. Then there is the very size of our home. Our land mass is just short of 3 million square miles. We count more "us" than any place on earth except Russia and China. Our vastness provides virtually every type of climate condition, from the sultry subtopics of the south to Alaska's subarctic chill. Americans want to see their own country, and they pretty much understand that while the melting pot concept worked during the past waves of immigration, the country is now more of a salad bowl: many cultures on the same plate, each maintaining its own distinctive characteristics. So we can really make the case, I think, that while passport applications are up, they are up because our population has grown, there are more Americans working abroad and passports are now required for travel in North America. There is no evidence to suggest that the arrogance associated with those who wonder, "Why leave the U.S. when we've got everything here?" has in any way disappeared. We still stubbornly refuse to learn a second or third language. We still accept the fact that one can graduate high school in this country without ever engaging in the formal study of world geography. We still cling to the outmoded notion that we are the best at nearly everything. This is, I think, at the heart of why more of our clients don't travel abroad. There is no overriding desire to visit the more affluent, better educated, healthier, better-read portions of the world that have been off our radar (it seems to me) forever. Can we even conceive of the notion of encouraging travel to places that do some things better than we do? Imagine how liberating and fulfilling such travel could be. But for that to happen, you need a population that is curious about the developed world. For that to happen, you need a society that respects highly educated people instead of mocking them. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.