We sat nervously in the back of a pickup truck on our way to an elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The truck had stopped 3 times to pick up other couples, most on their honeymoons, to venture out into the jungle on the edge of the city. One, two, three couples were picked up after us. All young, affluent, and American.
I made a silent face to my husband, telepathically signalling to him to not bring up guns, politics generally, and under no circumstances, Trump.
Light banter about the weather and Thai street food vendors eventually led to politics. I inhaled tensely, waiting for the dice to fall and our new friends for the day to reveal their political views.
One by one each couple chimed in. All democrats, all for gun control, all LGBTQ+ friendly, all anti-Trump. Bias checked.
It hit me at that moment that every single American I have been lucky enough to meet abroad has been like this. Lovely, accepting, progressive. It got me thinking about travel and global mobility as a means of combating ignorance and hate. Does travel make people more empathetic? Or do empathetic people just get out and travel more?
How Many Americans Have Passports Anyway?
You've probably heard the statistic that only 10% of Americans hold a valid passport. For me, this number has been in my head for years, living there as fact, but is it actually true? Is the number of passport holding Americans truly that dismally low?
I was chatting with someone from England recently about racism, fearing of the "other", and humanity's inevitable descent into tribal warfare (just light chit chat really) and that statistic popped into my mind.
Certainty can be a dangerous thing. When you're certain something just IS without really knowing where that information came from or its validity, you need to dig and check your facts.
Turns out no, the number of passports in the US is actually much higher than the 10% I was so quick to sputter out.
According to the BBC, "While that was true in 1994, the figure now is more than 40% - and it grows every year." So, the number of people, particularly young people, with valid US passports is well on the rise.
The article goes on to say, "Although the number of US passport-holders is growing, 42% may seem a low proportion. In Britain, for example, the percentage is far higher. In 2011 - when the last UK census took place - 76% of people in England and Wales held a UK passport. Only 17% had no passport at all."
Things are moving in the right direction, but the numbers are still lower compared to other developed nations.
So, what can we thank for this shift? An increased emphasis on experientialism means more and more young people want to experience things, not have things. Young people want to share their experience on social media, meaning Instagram tourism is real and growing. Factors like these have, of course, played their part in contributing to the growing number of passports amongst Americans.
Now, before you feel all hopeful and excited, there are a couple of motivators to address from the BBC article that skew the numbers.
The laws changed after 9/11 and many Americans who frequently visited Canada using their diver's license now needed to hold a passport in order to move across the border. That change in the law was obviously followed by an increase in the number of passport holders stateside.
"When the law tightened, people needed passports to leave the country. Within three years, the number of US passports in circulation had grown by 20 million." says the BBC. That's a HUGE shift brought on, ironically enough, by fear, security, and a tightening of borders in response to terror.
So, laws change, the total number of passports increases. Makes sense.
The second element that leapt out at me as a passport motivator was for me, deeply rooted in entitlement.
One person interviewed about the motivation for getting a passport said, " "I feel like I need an option to get out," she says. "If this man (President Trump) is going to keep on tweeting at Kim Jong-un about his nuclear button, I need an option to leave." "
The attitude of hesitation to admit refugees and immigrants into your country, but then without hesitation feel entitled to flee in your time of need and be welcomed by another nation with open arms is so entitled I struggle to write this. Some people are getting passports in the US so they can make a break for it if needed, and I think the irony is largely lost.
This combined with tighter borders and travel regulations also contribute to the increase in total passports. Of course, educated open-minded Americans are getting out and exploring the world, which is amazing. Others are motivated by fear and entitlement to have a "way out" if things head south.
I suspect this is not a widespread attitude or strategy, but as it came up repeatedly in my research I felt it was worth mentioning.
Who Wants to Leave?
Record numbers of Americans now want to leave the United States, propelled by the election of Donald Trump. the Gallup poll and report says, "During the first two years of the Trump administration, a record-high one in five U.S. women (20%) said they would like to move to another country permanently if they could. This is twice the average for women during the Obama (10%) or Bush years (11%) and almost twice the level among men (13%) under Trump."
So, women want to flee the US in record numbers, which may also drive passport numbers up further, as people plan and prepare to leave the United States. Again, fear as the primary motivator.
Turns out Americans are travelling...a lot.
Not only are Americans getting passports in record numbers, but they are also travelling and spending a LOT of money doing so.
"According to a report by Get Going travel insurance using data from the U.N. World Tourism Organization, the U.S. ranked second for outbound travel in 2017: Americans spent more than $135 billion on overseas tourism, an increase of 9 percent from the year prior. (China came in first place, with nearly $258 million spent on international tourism.)" says one Newsweek article.
Americans are getting the paperwork, packing up, and getting out there exploring the world. These are all great things for education, cultural awareness and empathy right? Theoretically.
So, does travel make people more empathetic?
Travel has a way of making you feel larger than life and completely inconsequential at the same time. At once you are powerful, courageous, but also insignificant and really fucking small. You feel part of something greater, tapped into humanity through shared experiences and introspection (hopefully), but also tangled in a newfound awareness, or reminder, of just how many people are on this blue speck.
It's a paradox. A pendulum ride for a traveller. One that pushes and pulls you around like a throng of people getting on the London tube. You're unique, surely, but also part of an endless mob of people, moving toward a common goal, or fighting against the current of an uncommon one.
So, does travel make you feel a deeper connection to those around you? Make you more empathetic? Or are more empathetic people naturally drawn to be travellers, and share experiences with those not like them?
I have no answer for you other than a stream of opinion travel blogs. No clear, peer-reviewed article that I can share that gives me the answer I want to hear, which is yes. Yes, getting out into the world will open your mind, heart, and make you a more understanding and empathetic person.
From my own experience, I have always been an empath. I have always felt the feelings of other people. Not in a sentimental, shallow way, but in a deep aching and painful way. Maybe that's why I travel?
For me, I need to believe that meeting people from different cultures, walks of life, faiths will make me a more open person, not a more fearful and closed off version of myself.
We Need Travel More Than Ever
The world is kind of fucked-up right now.
The planet is dying. Fear, racism, and hate surround us. Diseases once cured are back and booming thanks to lunatic anti-vaxxers. The oceans are a slurry of plastics, pollution, and drowned polar bears. Nazis roam the streets, some even live in the White House.
So, in spite of this raging garbage fire of human existence, why is being a traveller so important? How could something so seemingly self-indulgent and decadent have any usefulness whatsoever?
We need conscious travel now more than ever. People need to leave their comfort zones, meet other people, talk to them, but most importantly, shut up and listen to them.
Travellers need to do this responsibly, consciously, and with as little impact to the places they visit as possible, but that's a whole other topic I'll dedicate another post to.
For me, travel is selfish. It's about self-transformation, growth, enlightenment, and compassion. It's about a life well-lived. About connecting with people, with myself, and seeing the world (while we still can).
Anthony Bourdain said it best, “The journey changes you. It should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, your consciousness, your heart and on your body. You take something with you and, hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
The "leaving something good behind" is what we all need to embrace as we travel. Not a trail of single-use plastics, or footprints as we visit and damage historic sites in droves, but maybe a small connection with another human being. A moment of empathy and connection that that person will carry with them. Surely, we can all manage that.