Today will probably go down in history as the point when a respectable number of Americans finally owned a passport. When the dust settles it could hit 35 to 40 percent–double the number of a few years back. Last April it got up to 27 percent and it crossed 30 percent soon after the deadline announcement. As of now, a passport is required for returning from any non-U.S. territory, including Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. We’re a nation of contradictions of course: lining up before first light to get a bargain the day after Thanksgiving, but putting off for years the simple tasks like mailing in a form to the government.
Besides, it has been easy to be lazy here, since you could visit an entire continent with nothing but a driver’s license, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Artic to the some of the hottest deserts on Earth. Places where French or Spanish is the first language could be reached on a road trip. Skiing, scuba, hiking, kayaking, and rafting without ever leaving the home country. It’s easy for the Belgians to sneer about their superior passport percentage numbers: when you get tired of eating waffles and drinking nice beer, what are you going to do for adventure? You drive an hour or two and you’re in another country. Here we can drive seven hours and still be in Tennessee, Florida, California, or Texas.
Of course I agree that isolation adds to ignorance–that’s true no matter what country you’re in. So hopefully my countrymen and women will put down the Pringles, turn off CNN and Fox News, and start venturing further afield. But will they do it in a way that really promotes understanding? Or will they just go on group tours and stay in resorts that shelter them from the place they’re visiting? Or will they go on cruises, where that industry lobbied to have a temporary exception to the passport rule? Time will tell, but after seeing hordes of real travelers in Mexico, Peru, and Argentina on recent trips, and seeing the increase in U.S. visitors to places like Turkey and Morocco, I’m getting more optimistic.