Arnie WeissmannLonely Planet guidebooks filled three niches when they were launched in the 1970s. First, they covered vast areas of the planet that traditional guidebooks ignored.

They provided information aimed at those interested in the emerging budget, adventure and ecotourism segments. Most importantly, they were written for readers who thought of themselves primarily as travelers, not tourists.

Over the years, Lonely Planet branched out as a media company, producing phrase books, cuisine guides, journals and TV shows. And it has recently published The Travel Book, a fat, richly photographed, soft-cover book with extraordinary images from around the globe.

On the occasion of the release of that book, I was invited by Lonely Planet to join consumer travel journalists and travel research organizations for a symposium at the United Nations to discuss, in essence, why more Americans arent traveling abroad, and what might inspire them to do so. The kick-off question focused on the statistic that only about 20% of Americans have passports. Why isnt that number higher?

Taken together, the answers created a mosaic of fear: Fear of terrorism or a hostile reception, worries about lack of hygiene or medical facilities and discomfort with foreign languages, foods and practices.

Pauline Frommer, whose father, Arthur, launched a previous revolution in guidebooks, all but said, Its the economy, stupid. The medium income for a family of four in the U.S. is $40,000, she said. Why get a passport if you cant afford to travel abroad?

Beth Harpaz, the travel editor of the Associated Press, noted that feedback from the editors of travel sections for AP-affiliated newspapers support the notion that when many Americans think of travel, they think of getting in the car and keeping expenses in check.

The editor of one paper asked me to send more stories about destinations that readers could drive to from Buffalo. At the time, I was preparing to send out a story about scuba diving in Kenya, Harpaz said.

One wonders whether the number of passport holders would be significantly less than 20% if it werent for changes made in the 1990s that required passports for visits to Canada and Mexico.

I think fear and, yes, economics each has its place in the puzzle, but I also think both of these can be countered by stimulating curiosity about the world. It can be accomplished through schools, particularly through language classes and high school trips abroad. Take a 16-year-old out of the country and his or her life will be changed forever.

At the U.N., the group discussed ways our businesses could boost interest in travel. There was no obvious answer. But for the trade, I have a suggestion that requires a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of travel agencies. An agency owner doesnt need to stimulate the whole country to travel -- just her or his community.

Individual agencies getting involved with school boards to advocate for language programs and study-abroad opportunities can enrich the community and strengthen their businesses.

As the bumper sticker says: Think Globally, Act Locally.

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