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Department of Geography
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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

June 26, 2011 - Americans’ Geographical Ignorance and Disinclination to Travel Abroad

“How long does it take to cross the bridge from Australia to New Zealand?" “Why on earth did they build Windsor Castle on the flight path of Heathrow?” The geographical (and historical) ignorance evinced in these American tourist questions is legendary, and the National Geographic Society confirmed it in 2002 with a study showing that, among Americans aged 18 to 24, almost 30 percent could not identify the Pacific Ocean on a map. More than half could not locate India, and 85 percent could not find Iraq. The young people of America, the richest and most powerful country in the world, ranked next to last in the nine countries surveyed (source).

While American geographic education has improved in the last decade, most Americans still do not even have a passport. “The number of Americans who have a passport, according to the most recent statistics issued by the State Department in January of 2011, is 114,464,041. Given the country’s population of 307,006,550, about 37% of the population has one, compared to Canada's 60% and the United Kingdom's 75%. This means that nearly 2 out of 3 Americans can’t even fly to Canada, let alone travel to anywhere else in the world (although new rules currently allow about 3.5 million Americans with ‘Passport Cards’ to travel to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean and Bermuda, but these cards are not allowed to be used for international air travel)” (source).

Presumably, Americans' geographical ignorance and disinclination to travel abroad are two sides of the same coin, and several reasons for it have been put forward:

  • History and isolation. “No doubt Americans just don’t have the history and drive that, say, the British have for international travel. Simon Winchester in the 2009 edition of The Best American Travel Writing has this to say on that subject: There was essentially no empire (the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and a scattering of Pacific islands excepted), and hence little by way of imperial legacy. The country is formidably isolated by thousands of miles of ocean from almost anywhere truly foreign, and getting abroad is very much more costly. Americans seldom went to seek their fortunes overseas, as British so often did . . . [and there] is little tradition of American exploration (aside from exploration-as-entertainment put on for the benefit of a number of some rather dubious but fashionable clubs and societies)” (Ibid.). It should also be noted that only 9 percent of Americans, compared with 44 percent of Europeans, speak a foreign language.
  • Cultural and geographical diversity. "America has it all: 'From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam,' as 'God Bless America' proclaims. Beautiful beaches in Florida, crisp skiing in Colorado, and the desert sun in Arizona are among thousands of domestic destinations competing to lure visitors. 'In the United States, we have an enormous amount of places we can travel -- basically an entire continent,' said everything-everywhere.com author Gary Arndt. 'You can do all kinds of things without needing a passport.' Arndt, who was in Los Angeles when interviewed by CNN, noted that he could go to any number of different ethnic enclaves within the city and get a taste of culture without spending much money or time. The same goes for many other parts of the country" (source).
  • Money and logistics. "Given the average income and costs associated with raising kids for the average American, and given the costs of traveling abroad, even the cheapest trip abroad would essentially bankrupt a typical family." Furthermore, Americans have a work culture/ethic that prevents them from taking long vacations abroad (Ibid.).
  • Xenophobia and insecurity. “Americans are just scared of the world. I mean, really scared. Maybe even petrified. In this post-9/11 world, Americans have been taught that the world is a big, frightening place. There are terrorists outside every hotel waiting to kidnap you. People don’t like you because you are American. The world is violent. It’s poor. It’s dirty. It’s savage. Canada and Europe are O.K., but, if you go there, they will still be rude to you because you are American. No one likes us. Even before 9/11, the media created an environment of fear. If it bleeds, it leads right? Prior to 9/11, the media played up violence at home and abroad. Pictures of riots in foreign streets, threats against Americans, and general violence were all played up to portray a volatile and unsafe world. After 9/11, it only got worse. Politicians now tell us ‘they hate you,’ as former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani did during his campaign. It’s US vs. THEM!!!” (source).

Article by Bill Norrington (an American who has a passport and has visited over 20 foreign countires)

Image 1 for article titled "Americans’ Geographical Ignorance and Disinclination to Travel Abroad"
Annual issuances of American passports. At least Americans aren’t as bad in this respect compared to the Chinese whose 20 million passport holders are a mere 1.5% of the population. Chart courtesy of travel.state.gov/passport/ppi/stats/stats, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs
Image 2 for article titled "Americans’ Geographical Ignorance and Disinclination to Travel Abroad"
Sarah Palin got her first passport in 2007, the year before running for Vice President, and she has implied that traveling is for the rich: “I’m not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents get ‘em a passport and give ‘em a backpack and say go off and travel the world. Noooo. I worked all my life… I was not, uh, a part of, I guess, that culture.” But, of course, with a view of Russia from her back porch, she doesn’t need to travel far…
Image 3 for article titled "Americans’ Geographical Ignorance and Disinclination to Travel Abroad"
View of the World Trade Center shortly after both towers fell (the original 7 World Trade Center can be seen still standing) (Wikipedia: September 11 attacks). “It took a catastrophe on American soil on September 11, 2001, to truly burst our bubble of security. For the first time in 60 years, large numbers of Americans were killed by foreigners on American soil. Suddenly, international news really seemed to matter. And yet here we are, nine years into the war on terror, and most Americans cannot find Iraq on a map. I bet a lot of them, however, can tell you the name of last year’s NBA Most Valuable Player (Lebron James), some of the winners of the “American Idol” competition, or what the hottest computer or video game might currently be. Once again, material prosperity and entertainment can suck us in every time. The outside world, after all, seems so damn scary, depressing, and far away” (http://hubpages.com/hub/American-Ignorance-of-Global-Geography)
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