It’s commonly acknowledged that Americans struggle with geography, especially with their knowledge of places outside the U.S. This 2006 survey by National Geographic highlights some of the deficiencies, noting that many young adults in the U.S. “fail to understand the world and their place in it.” At the same time, Douglas Richardson, executive director of the Association of American Geographers, stresses that “geographic knowledge is essential for survival in our rapidly globalizing world.
Education, travel, and language matter, noted Robert Pastor, vice president of international affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., “People who have more education, have traveled outside the country, and who can speak a second language are more likely to answer more questions on the geography survey correctly.” While it’s great that we can identify the causes of our geographic illiteracy, the next logical step is to devise solutions. The good news is that college enrollment in Geography classes is starting to increase (due in large part to fancy new tools such as Geographic Information Systems and GPS). But American travel abroad, necessary for both area knowledge and language learning, remains low. According to a Gallup poll from December 2012, only 19% of Americans left the country that year, the same percentage as 2001. The question becomes – why don’t more Americans travel internationally?
The answers most often associated with this question are: travel is expensive and the U.S. is geographically isolated from the rest of the world. These answers, while shedding some light on the issue, do not take into account that travel is also expensive for people in other countries and there are other places in the world that are geographically isolated. But, this doesn’t stop people in these places from traveling abroad. A June 2011 travel report on Australia, for example, noted (large PDF) that between 1998 and 2010 foreign travel by Australians almost doubled.
According to a 2011 CNN article, tourism experts agree that American travel habits are largely due to three main factors:
- Americans’ lack of knowledge about foreign places
- Americans’ work habits and not taking vacations
- The U.S.’s own cultural and geographic diversity
The struggle with geographic literacy in the U.S. has already been covered and it should come as no surprise that Americans’ are workaholics – working longer weeks and taking fewer vacation days than citizens of most other countries, according to Business Insider. This leaves cultural and geographic diversity. Could this diversity really be keeping Americans from traveling abroad?
The Physical and Cultural Diversity of the United States
Gary Arndt, the author of the travel blog Everything Everywhere, suggests that Americans don’t have to travel to see great wonders and experience other cultures because they can find those things at home. The U.S. is the third largest country in the world by land area and encompasses countless natural wonders ranging from the Grand Canyon and Mount McKinkey/Denali in the west to the Appalachian Mountains and the New England coast in the east. The land area is so large that flights from one end of the country to the other can take almost as long as flights to Europe from the East Coast. Within Europe, on the other hand, countries are much smaller, making it relatively easy for someone to travel through two (or more) countries in just a few hours.
To add to the foundation of such a vast physical geography, the cultural geography of the U.S. is also very diverse. During the last few hundred years, a rich blend of Europeans, Africans, South Americans, and Asians added to the mosaic of Native American cultures who had been inhabiting the North American landscape for millennia. This mass immigration from countries all over the globe produced the fourth most populous country in the world, made up almost entirely of people and cultures from somewhere else. People in new places do tend to conform over time, but the original blend is still noticeable due to a large variety of regional differences in culture ranging from food and music to language and lifestyle. This blend is also responsible for the creation of some diverse and interesting cities such as New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Seattle, just to name a few
The United States as a Travel Destination
Critics may argue that Americans’ hesitancy to travel abroad is due to fear of the “unknown” and not to a rich endowment of physical and cultural geography. While some people undoubtedly refrain from traveling out of fear, the large number of people visiting the U.S. from abroad reinforces the idea that there are a lot of things to do and see in the U.S. According to information provided by the World Tourism Organization, the United States ranked second in the number of foreign visitors in 2011 (behind France). Also, Trip Advisor’s 2013 Travelers’ Choice Awards awarded to the U.S. three of the world’s top 25 travel destinations (New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, tying with Italy for the most in any one country) and an article by U.S. News and World Report selected U.S. places as eight of the world’s top 25 places to visit. Lastly, according to Travel and Leisure, of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, the top nine are in the U.S.
For a long time the geographic isolation of the United States, the complexity of planning an overseas trip, and the shear expenses of international travel kept Americans (except for the very rich) from visiting foreign places. Today, however, planning trips is much easier thanks to modern technology (namely the internet), travel times have decreased with modern transportation, and the relative expenses have decreased compared to what they used to cost. Thus, the challenges of physical geography seem to have been largely “conquered.” Still, Americans tend not to travel abroad, so there must be more to the story. Today, according to the travel information and statistics, it seems as if the cultural geography of the U.S. is influencing travel behavior.
But with increasing globalization, Americans will have to continue to engage with other countries and cultures through immersion experiences that can only be experienced with travel. Having diverse experiences close to home is not an equal substitute for the “real thing.” In a CNN article, Joe Byrne, executive vice president for Tourism Ireland, said it best. "America is an outstanding country and an outstanding vacation destination , no doubt about that. But it is America. I'm sure you have great Irish traditional music in an American Irish pub, but you don't have the Lakes of Killarney."