Should terrorism keep Americans from traveling overseas?

In the wake of recent terror attacks in Paris and an article in an Al Qaeda magazine that provided instructions for making a bomb that is undetectable by current airport security technology, the U.S. State Department issued the following travel warning for Americans traveling abroad:

“Recent terrorist attacks…serve as a reminder that U.S. citizens need to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness”

On face value, the alert might seem a normal precaution, however a week later the Department of Homeland Security said,

“there is no specific, credible threat of an attack on the U.S. like what happened in Paris last week”

A Google search for the two statements is telling. The State Department warning was found on 2,510 websites, many of which were major media outlets, while the latter statement by Homeland Security showed up on 15 sites, only one of which was a major media outlet (ABC-TV). Little wonder that Americans are mired in fear over the prospect of international travel.

Google search for State Department travel warning

Google search for State Department travel warning

The reticence of Americans to travel overseas is a well documented fact. A consumer study by – a leading source of news, information, data and services for the travel industry – concluded that only 13 percent of Americans traveled internationally in 2014. This is hardly surprising, given State Department statistics that less than 38 percent of the U.S. citizens hold a passport. Though this figure is slightly misleading (legal residents of the U.S. who are not citizens and hold foreign passports are not counted in the State Department numbers), it is still significantly below the percentage of passport holders in other countries. Contrast it with the 83% of non-immigrant British citizens who hold passports.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, the actual figures are even worse than the Skift study indicates. Only 29,015,463 Americans (9 percent) traveled to international destinations in 2013 – the most recent year for which statistics are available – and this includes destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, which have long been vacation havens for U.S. travelers.

American reluctance to travel abroad may have been born from our isolationist viewpoint during the Revolution, when we not-so-politely informed England we no longer needed or wanted them. Not only is isolationism in our DNA, the United States is so vast and diverse that most Americans feel no need to travel outside its borders. Exacerbating this is the fact that, unlike Europeans, whose holidays range from four to six weeks, the typical American worker receives one or two weeks of vacation. Considering that traveling offshore would take up two full days of an already short holiday, it makes perfect sense that Americans prefer to vacation in their own backyard.

2014 survey by - travel habits of Americans

2014 survey by – travel habits of Americans

The lack of exposure to cultures other than their own, however, carries a price that may not be realized for generations. Last week I struck up a conversation with two 20-something women working at a Chicagoland coffee shop. Neither of them had ever traveled outside the U.S. or had any interest in traveling internationally.

Both agreed they hated to fly, but admitted this had nothing to do with fear of airplanes. Their displeasure revolved around the endless security lines and ever-changing rules of the TSA. “We had to go to a family event in Florida a few months ago,” one of them recounted, “and we decided to drive because it was so much easier.”

“I’m just uncomfortable being around people who don’t speak English,” the other said. “And my husband is a police officer, so he is very concerned about safety. It’s a pretty scary world these days. Have you ever had problems when you travel?”

I recounted that in all my years of travel, I’ve only had one bad experience; many years ago, I was robbed while staying in a campground on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Not only have I never felt unsafe or threatened in any of the 50+ foreign countries I’ve visited, it would take me hours to recount all the kindnesses that people around the world have shown me. Locals have invited me into their homes, shared meals, and closed their shops to help me find my way in unfamiliar locales.

Combined figures for major and minor assaults by world region, per the European Institute for Crime Prevention

Combined figures for major and minor assaults by world region, per the European Institute for Crime Prevention, In affiliation with the United Nations

Sadly, most Americans gauge the safety of the world by reports on CNN and Fox, which spew fear mongering news around-the-clock, and recent coverage of the terrorist attacks has only amplified our fears. As a result, we stay home, where we feel safe. Yet are we truly safer, or is this an illusion? The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, in affiliation with the United Nations, ranks North America as having the third highest incidence of assaults per 100,000 population, after Oceania and parts of Africa. We are far more likely to be involved in a mugging close to home than one in in a foreign country.

Do we need to be vigilant when we travel? Of course. It is advisable to leave your jewelry at home, avoid flashing large amounts of money, limit your intake of alcohol, abstain from illegal drug use, and stay away from politically motivated demonstrations. Above all, travelers should practice being aware of what is happening around them at all times. But terrorist attacks are no excuse to stay home. If we do, we become ever more insulated from the world and fearful of other cultures. If we do, the terrorists win.

When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside, she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

Posted by | Comments (7)  | January 27, 2015
Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel, Vagabonding Styles

7 Responses to “Should terrorism keep Americans from traveling overseas?”

  1. Roger Says:

    This is very informative, and mind boggling how few Americans venture abroad. I’ve been traveling abroad since I was in College in the mid-80s, and lived in London for six-years after that. Married life continued the travels, since my wife has siblings and relatives in Germany, the UK and Trinidad & Tobago. We very much look forward to vacationing abroad every summer. One bright spot is study abroad. I work at a community college and more and more students want to do this, especially once they discover how safe most of the world is and contrary to the prevailing news headlines.

  2. Faith Says:

    Thank you for a very good article! I traveled for 6 months and 9 countries last year to the Olympics with reported security concerns, to Russia with the escalation of the Ukraine crisis and was in Istanbul during the riots. My friends from home listening to CNN and other USA news were sending me I suppose well meaning caution but without any credible information on why I should not go to any of these countries. Ukraine was on my travel plans but decided to cancel after the State Department Warning. The other countries, I decided to go. Although I knew the USA news is not the most accurate and hyped it caused me some anxiety researching the situation myself and making decisions. The Istanbul riots were the most disconcerting but when I saw the coverage of the riots on my return to the States they were not at all accurate in that it was quite easy to avoid the riots because they were confined to specific areas. Reports from the States were stay out of Russia, you will be targeted which we were not. Quite the contrary, we were welcomed and found whoever we met to be most helpful. Despite the concern of my friends, I am returning to Europe this year.

  3. Linda Says:

    Are, I wonder, Americans aware of how this works the other way around? I have no figures to back up what I am going to say, but you would be amazed at the number of people I’ve spoken to (of different nationalities, but predominantly English or Spanish) who won’t travel to the US? Every time there is a shooting at a school or a mall (even kids shooting their own mothers in supermarkets …. it could have been some innocent bystander as easily as the kid’s own mom) more folk are put off holidaying in the US. More than terrorist threats (and we learned to live with those in UK during the IRA’s last reign of terror), it is the random possibility of these shootings which scares us. I’ve been lost a couple of times when driving and been much more anxious than I would have been in Europe. It was probably wrong of me, but then the news seems to be as full of these stories as it does of terrorist plots. Mostly I’ve experienced nothing but kindness over there, but then that doesn’t make headlines, does it!

  4. Roger Says:

    I would say that most travel warnings are over exaggerated. Unless there is a significant civil war or significant country vs country war, with aerial bombing, you can still travel. Other than real war situations, travel is manageable most of the time. There are always plenty of safe areas to go, especially if you have trusted contacts. And, yes, I’d agree Linda that people (inexperienced travelers) are scared away from traveling to the U.S. because of fear. Savvy travelers not so much.

  5. Barbara Weibel Says:

    Good point, Linda! I hear all the time from Europeans, Asians, Aussies, and New Zealanders how they have decided to put off travel to the USA due to the gun/crime/violence issue, and because of perceived unfriendliness of our Immigration people when they arrive in the country. Fellow surfers told me a couple of years ago that they arrived from the UK, intending to wander the coasts and discover all the surf spots. Immigration told them they couldn’t do that – they required them to have a concrete itinerary showing where they would be staying each day they were in the US. Ridiculous! I can go almost anywhere in the world and wander at will, but in America we treat tourists like they are potential criminals. Not to mention that we now impose significant fees to obtain a visa, while other countries allow Americans to enter without a fee. This is hitting our wallets in a different way, as some countries (South America, especially) are now charging hefty visa fees for Americans, simply as a reciprocity measure. In my opinion, travel is one of the most powerful tools we have to foster world peace and we seem to be doing everything we can to discourage it.

  6. Barbara Weibel Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Roger and Faith. I absolutely agree that listening to the news or even putting too much emphasis on State Department warnings can result in a mortal fear that keeps people from traveling. I realize the State Department has to be in CYA mode, but the news services are all about chasing ratings with coverage that is as sensational as they can make it. I use common sense when I decide where to travel. I’m not going to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, or Iran any time soon, but many of the countries where problems are reported are, in truth, safe travel destinations, as long as normal precautions are taken. For instance, I was in Istanbul during the demonstrations and even went to Taksim Square, but stayed away from that locale during the weekends when demonstrations were scheduled. Frankly, I try to listen to TV news as little as possible and instead rely on more balanced sources for my information.

  7. Roger Says:

    I am really annoyed when I hear someone who is very hawkish about American intervention in world affairs say that they are not going to travel outside of the country because it is too dangerous. You are probably right Barbara, about more intense scrutiny of travelers between countries these days. It bothers me, to an extent, but I remember instances back in the early 90’s of, especially, young travelers from eastern Europe trying to go the the UK and being denied because of lack of sufficient funds in their possession. I know it happens to some travelers, who don’t seem to care about how they look, and raise eyebrows around customs people. I’ve never, personally, been denied entry to any country, and I think that you must always be careful of your appearance, and try to look somewhat presentable and responsible. Try not to look suspicious, folks.