Only about 30 percent of all U.S. citizens have passports. Sixty percent of Canadians, and 75 percent of Britons, do.
The U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism said this week that U.S. citizens made 61.5 million trips outside the country in 2009. Bruce Bommarito, chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association, says that's low for a country where so many people have the means to travel, and concludes, "Americans are comfortable in their own environment."
Now a study like this is often the occasion for commentators to scold Americans for not getting out in the world, and demanding Holiday Inns and McDonalds when we do. I don't want to do that.
There are solid, innocent reasons why Americans may be inclined to stay home. America, after all, is a continent, as much as a country. It takes longer for someone in Des Moines to get to New York or Los Angeles than it does for someone in Paris to get to London or Berlin.
And, America's vastness contains enormous diversity: from glaciers to deserts, skyscrapers to canyons, and from Afghan people to ethnic Zulus.
Americans can ski snowy peaks and salute Saguaro cacti in stark deserts without ever needing a passport. American cities like New York and Chicago have restaurants that serve food from every region of Mexico, China, Greece and India, which you don't see in Mexico, China, Greece or India.
Americans may not go overseas as much as we might like. But people from overseas make new lives here all the time. Not every American family may make it to the Eiffel Tower. But millions of Americans may have neighbors from Korea, Cambodia, Russia, Cuba, Italy, Lebanon, Poland and Ethiopia. Everyday life can be cultural exposure here.
And, there's always something else to see. I've been to all 50 states. But I've never been to the top of the Empire State Building, the Pacific Coast Highway, Mardi Gras or DisneyWorld.
But of course it would be good for more Americans to get passports and see the world. Seeing new places opens our eyes, hearts, and minds. To arrive some place as a stranger both humbles and revives us, and helps us to see that the other side of the world is the other side of a place that all people share.
As astronaut Mark Kelly told the National Prayer Breakfast this week, he has been able to see our planet as he goes around the world—and around and around—from space, and now sees our earth, "as God created it, in the context of God's vast universe, with the heavens as its ceiling." Even going around the earth just a little could give us some of that view.