The Great Wall of China. Photo by Andy Stoll

The Paradox of American Travel

Americans should be some of the most traveled people in the world, yet we are some of the least.

While traveling around the world, with just a backpack and an open-mind, I’d guess that I met more than a thousand people doing exactly what I was doing — long-term, solo travel around the world. Of those travelers, I can count the number of American around-the-world travelers I met (in a near half-a-decade of travel) on just two hands. I met thousands of Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, French, Koreans, Australians and even Canadians, but only seven Americans.

Probably the biggest surprise of my travels is that Americans are some of the least globally-traveled people on the planet. Yet by all accounts, Americans should be some of the most. If you asked us, most of us wish we were.

I’ve come to refer to this as the“Paradox of American Travel.”

After living, working, volunteering and traveling in nearly 50 countries, I moved back home to the United States because it is the only country I’ve been to where the dominant cultural meme is, “if you believe, you can achieve — believe in the power of your dreams.” Americans are raised in a culture that encourages us to believe that we can do or be anything. It’s an essential part of the fabric that makes America what it is. With enough hard work, it is said, you can do whatever you want.

If you polled a room full of Americans and asked, “if you could do whatever you wanted— regardless of time, money, talent or education — you’d find that 70–80% of the room would say something related to travel:

“I’d lay on a beach in the Mediterranean.”

“I’d take my family on a tour of Europe.”

“I’d drive a motorcycle across China.”

“I’d go on safari in Africa.”

(The other folks typically say something about family.)

Travel, it seems, may be America’s largest collective dream. (You may be tempted to counter that the biggest dream is actually “being rich,” but I’d say that while we fantasize about “being rich,” its more a means to an end: Being rich, leads to more opportunity and time to travel.)

We collectively aspire to be a well-traveled people, yet we travel abroad less than the rest of the developed world. About one-third of Americans have passports, compared to 65% of Canadians and 75% of the British. In 2015, Americans made only 73 million trips overseas. Many Americans have never left the country, and for those who do, most won’t travel for more than 14 days straight in their entire life, a two-week vacation (You can’t learn much in just two weeks in a country). Yet travel, it seems, is what we all yearn for. In the land of “follow your dreams,” we chase all sorts of dreams, unless it is travel — that one, “young man,” is to be saved for later, a dream deferred until you’ve “made it.”

I’ll go travel one day, when I have the money,” is the excuse I hear often. But the reality is that for many of us, it is just that, an excuse. Money, or a lack of it, is an external thing that we can blame that is not us— so we don’t have to talk about the real reasons (more of that in future posts). International travel, outside of the developed world, is much less expensive than most imagine. For the price of a 12-day Caribbean cruise, one could travel through Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, China or Mexico for a month.

The Paradox of American travel should trouble us greatly. Not just because of dreams deferred and adventures never taken, but because in the emerging hyper-connected, technology-driven world, our ability to understand each other, to connect across borders, and to collaborate across cultures, will dictate how we live with the rest of the world — or in conflict with it.

No experience can replace actually being there. A recipe for Pad Thai gleaned from will never quite taste the same as it would in a cramped, exhaust-frosted food stall on the bustling streets of Bangkok. A YouTube documentary about Syrian refugees will never replace a face-to-face conversation with one. And no technology can make your heart feel how human “they” become when you sit down across the table from someone different from you — someone so different, in fact, that they help you see yourself and your culture clearly for the first time.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain

Paradoxically, the more connected we become through technology, the more I believe we must physically journey to distant shores to truly see “them” (and really ourselves) for the first time.

I know travel is a privilege, but it is more accessible than most realize. Those who can set out for distant shores will find that with their experiences comes the opportunity to connect us all.

In my next post, I’ll dive into why I think the Paradox of American Travel exists. It’s a Pandora’s box that provides an interesting lens through which we can examine how we live, what we seek in life, and why the Connected Age can turn it all on its head.

Originally published at

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