American Tourists Quit Trying to Understand the World

The United States initiated a new golden age of travel. Now terrorism and fear-mongering by demagogues is grounding the project.

Warner Bros/Everett

“Abroad is a nasty place.”

That sentiment was attributed to an American traveler on his return from Europe in the 1890s.

But it could equally well serve as the leitmotif of much of the American mood of the moment; a dark mood fueled by a toxic mix of fear and xenophobia; an indiscriminate hostility to all things alien, whipped up by demagogues.

As America turns inward on itself, “abroad” is something to be rejected rather than something to be experienced. And, alas, the immediate casualty is the surest foe of xenophobia: travel.

Make no mistake: The international travel business is hurting and it’s changing—for the worse.

To measure the harm we have to go back to the early 1970s.

This was the beginning of a golden age of world travel. It was empowered by one of America’s boldest and most pervasive technical triumphs, the creation of the jet age. The speed and price of travel were recombined in a magic formula in a way not seen since the global expansion of railroads in the second half of the 19th century.

At first with the arrival of the original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747, and then with the rapid development of jets of all sizes, airline economics were transformed. International air travel ceased to be a luxury and, instead, became attainable to millions of people across the world.

As this happened the barriers between cultures were breached. Prejudices about “abroad” were disarmed by millions of personal encounters. National and racial stereotypes gave way to national and racial characteristics as experienced firsthand, not by long-nourished myths.

World-shrinking flights, permeable borders, the discovery of the lives of others. It was edifying and liberating.

This was a truly democratic movement—and seemingly unstoppable.

And in its democratic reach it was very different from the two previous golden ages of travel.

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The first was the European Grand Tour of the 18th century, when aristocrats and the scions of the newly made mercantile fortunes traveled at horse-speed through the repositories of classical culture, principally Italy and Greece. The second was the railroad- and steamship-propelled wave of Europeans and Americans who not only soaked up Mediterranean treasures (as beautifully captured in the ardent self-improvers of E.M. Forster’s novel Room With a View) but ventured beyond to the Middle East, India, and the Orient.

These were—at least in intention—exercises by the already well-educated in acquiring an even better education by privileged means, long and often expensive trips for the open-minded and intellectually curious. But that range of travel remained out of reach for millions of people until the jet age coincided with the emergence of a more well-heeled and well-educated international middle class.

The effect of the new wave of travelers was not always benign. Mass tourism swamped iconic destinations like Venice and the French Riviera. But the real travelers—as opposed to the tourists—were no longer blinkered by a Eurocentric idea of what constituted a civilized culture. To these people the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia became as important to see as the cathedral at Chartres, or Kyoto, the old imperial capital of Japan, as spellbinding as the ruins of ancient Rome.

U.S. airlines like Pan American and TWA were the first to build new international routes based on the economics of the 747 and other widebody jets. The result was striking. In 1974, as these routes were being established, only 3 percent of Americans had passports. That has subsequently grown to about 38 percent.

However, in terms of international mobility, Americans still have some way to go. In Western Europe between 70 and 80 percent of people have passports.

And that 38 percent includes a lot of passports that are used to cross only the Canadian or Mexican borders or to visit Caribbean islands. But nonetheless it rapidly became evident on every continent that Americans were as adventurous and as open-minded about other cultures as travelers from any nation. (Think, for example, of Anthony Bourdain as an exemplar and populariser of eating virtually any street food, no matter how bizarre, from anywhere in the world!)

So for a while it seemed that the familiar tendency for America to retreat into isolationism when the rest of the world looked dangerous had run its course. Perhaps American opinion would be shaped by being better informed. By traveling, Americans had found out for themselves that abroad was, in reality, a complex and volatile place where people did not immediately accept American exceptionalism, had a pride in their own differences and values—and were prepared to debate them with open minds.

Then, abruptly, the hope of this enlightenment continuing was severely curtailed by the 9/11 attacks. Air travel was badly hit as Americans feared—correctly—that airport security was lax. It took five years for international air travel to recover to pre-9/11 levels. And by that time American travelers abroad were in a less adventurous mood, constrained by what was called “the new normal.” They were more inclined to want to travel in a bubble—a bubble equipped with American amenities and security no matter to which part of the globe they traveled.

Luxury hotel chains exploited this demand for traveling in an insulated bubble by building resorts in some of the world’s previously most remote spots—including Africa, Asia, New Zealand—and pampering their clients throughout the whole trip, often ending with a helicopter ride into a wilderness and descending into a well-secured enclave of familiar comforts. Whether then venturing on a “safari” in a fleet of Land Rovers replete with armed guards or more casually to a stream for trout fishing, there was never any danger of ever encountering an unfamiliar language—or mind.

Meanwhile, on a more mass level, cruise lines spotted this change of mood and responded, with the result that cruise ships grew in size from what once seemed a desirable limit of 2,000 passengers to now more than 6,000 passengers. These behemoths are the ultimate expression of bubble travel, a fusion of shopping mall and resort hotel, hermetically sealed from any culture other than the one that they embody. To see one of these monsters docked at the jetty of a tiny Caribbean island is to see a juxtaposition of worlds that is truly egregious.

An education by travel is, of course, a two-way process. The rest of the world is as curious about us as we should be about them. It ought to be mutual. But the national mood that fed bubble travel also had a counter-effect: Travelers coming to the U.S. came face to face with Fortress America. The previously private (and generally incompetent) airport security industrial complex morphed into a new branch of government, a gigantic, ponderous and essentially reactive bureaucracy named Homeland Security that embarked on the fortification of airports.

As a result, in addition to the indignities and frustrations inflicted on Americans traveling on domestic flights there is another level of suffering awaiting visitors from abroad.

A new survey by the BBC of what it feels like to arrive at an American airport as a visitor included the following:

An Australian who flew into Los Angeles (LAX) reported on the airport: “Old and dilapidated… dirty and neglected… overseas ‘visitors’ are treated with disdain and herded like cattle… the concept of customer service completely lacking.”

Or a Brit arriving at Miami International: “Took three hours to get into the place after landing—we queued in front of empty passport control desks, no nearby toilets or seating and no information. Two weeks later a further three hours to get out… a handful of toilets for hundreds of women… cockroaches scampering across our feet…”

Or an American from West Hollywood: “It’s no less than tragic that so many visitors from other countries are ‘welcomed’ to the U.S. at JFK. It is an abomination and a stain on President Kennedy’s memory.”

There were around 75 million overseas visitors to the U.S. in 2014. But that number includes those who simply cross from Canada or Mexico. Given the airport experience, the numbers from further afield are unlikely to grow. That is a pity. America is, potentially, one of the most diverse and territorially dramatic destinations in the world. It ought to be host to millions more visitors than it is.

Indeed, a closer examination of the numbers demonstrates that by international standards America is a surprisingly under-developed travel destination.

Visits to America were given a big boost by the introduction of the visa waiver program that allows visitors to stay up to 90 days. But it has now turned out that the waivers are granted after only perfunctory security checks. These security weaknesses are being belatedly addressed with the more than 30 nations who participate in the program. (No longer content to determine only our own defenses we dictate to scores of other nations how they, too, should fortify theirs.)

Around 20 million people fly into the U.S. on that program every year, most of them Europeans. That number may seem large. But consider this: Great Britain has 34 million overseas visitors a year and London alone accounts for 16 million of them. The U.S. has nothing approaching that drawing power.

This represents an enormous missed potential for the U.S. economy. Not just airlines, hotels, and resorts would benefit from more visitors. Travel is a business multiplier—it extends its benefits to all the ancillary services that travelers use and creates many thousands of jobs.

The saddest takeaway from this picture is that a very small number of terrorists have had a hugely disproportionate affect. The 9/11 attacks were obviously the most devastating and the longest-lasting in their harm. Nineteen men with box cutters killed 3,000 people and the economic costs have been put at $90 billion.

Following that, in March 2004 a conspiracy involving 29 terrorists killed 191 people in Madrid’s Atocha train station. In July 2004 four suicide bombers killed 52 people in London. Last month at least seven jihadists with guns and suicide vests killed 130 people in Paris, and this month two jihadists with assault rifles killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

This is what asymmetrical warfare looks like.

The golden age of travel may not be quite dead, but it has suffered a very expensive setback. The terrorist outrages in Spain and London did not have a lasting affect on travel to those cities. Paris remains in deep shock and under emergency laws but its appeal as a destination is so deeply embedded in the cultural legacy of not just France but the world that it will surely recover within months.

America, in contrast, seems less resilient. The San Bernardino slaughter—tragic but relatively small when set alongside the other attacks—produced a completely disproportionate change of mood, turned uglier after being fueled by politicians, building on foundations laid by imbecilic xenophobes like Ann Coulter.

In reality, the chances of being killed by random gun violence in America—now there’s an example of what the rest of civilization recognizes as American exceptionalism—are thousands of times greater than dying in a terrorist attack, yet we acquiesce as a nation to the apparent inevitability of that.

Nothing reinforces ignorance more than isolationism. Fear of “the other” intensifies as people retreat behind barricades in their minds, while the actual physical barricades fail to produce enduring security. Reinforced borders and walls promote friction and conflict, not contact.

Personal contact—the kind of contact that breaks barriers of attitude, language, religion, and ideology—comes only through experiencing the change of landscapes, senses, and feel of places that is the essence of travel.

When that is lost, we have done the terrorists’ work. Is this what we really want? Fear is the resort of losers, not winners.