Can your international vacation and tourism shape politics?
As the United States sends stockpiles of weapons to Ukraine, another transatlantic mobilization is underway. Freed from two years of COVID restrictions and testing requirements, Americans are once again traveling in large numbers. Market watchers have predicted a six-fold increase in US tourism to Europe from summer 2021.
If you’re wondering what arms shipments and tourist planes have in common, the answer is: not bad. Tourism has long had the habit of interfering in international politics.
It is easy to overlook the political importance of tourism. After all, most Americans travel abroad for fun or to experience a country’s history, food, and art. The goal is usually to escape the headlines, not to study them in detail.
Tourism is also easy to dismiss as a superficial activity involving pre-packaged and staged encounters. The word “tourist” began in the 18th century as a neutral synonym for “traveler”, but, as literary historian James Buzard has shown, cultural scholars quickly turned the word into an insult. From the mid-19th century, self-proclaimed travelers sought to bolster their own cultural status by deriding tourists as thoughtless sheep. The most famous American version of this anti-tourist stance came from popular historian Daniel J. Boorstin. In his 1962 book, The image, Boorstin lamented how the rise of practical transportation across oceans has made travel experiences “watered down, artificial, prefabricated.” According to Boorstin, a true traveler takes risks and interacts with locals, while tourists simply follow someone else’s script.
It is a mistake to stereotype tourists in this way. Historical records show that tourists are quite good at thinking for themselves. My research revealed many examples. Here’s one: Exactly 70 years ago, as the Korean War raged and the Iron Curtain divided Europe, the U.S. government decided to teach American tourists how to prepare for encounters with Communists and their supporters. It was the heyday of McCarthyism in the United States, but grassroots communist movements flourished in Western Europe. In fact, many waiters and maids serving Americans in French restaurants and luxury hotels belonged to communist unions. So in 1952, the United States Information Agency (USIA), working with civic organizations, saturated travel agencies, and airlines with a booklet, “What Should I Know When Traveling Abroad?” If the Americans encountered a Western European who wanted to negotiate with Moscow, the brochure suggested that the Americans respond politely but firmly: “It seems to us that in the struggle between what is right and what Wrong there is simply no room for neutralism.
The real tourists, however, did not follow the script. The USIA surveyed several hundred Americans at home after their 1952 trips. Most enjoyed the booklet, and a surprising 71% said they read it cover to cover. Still, the government’s diplomatic experts have found worrying signs. When it came to explaining something as basic as “America’s concern with communism,” the report found Americans “ill-equipped.” Alarmingly, the USIA has learned that the Americans are taking “a less determined position” on European neutralism than their government’s recommendation. At least a third said their travels helped them understand European desires to negotiate with the Soviets. A tourist admitted to the USIA: “I couldn’t say anything. I could only sympathize.
Indeed, international travel can help build solidarity with other countries. As the USIA has learned, tourists aren’t great at following specific political talking points, but tourism has, historically, instilled a sense of foreign places that matter to the United States. Why is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) so popular in the United States today? One reason is that Americans have been visiting Europe for so long in search of cultural treasures, giving these nations a sense of being part of a shared community. When World War I broke out, wealthy Americans who had traveled to Europe before the war became the most vocal advocates of US entry into the conflict, citing their memories of tourism, especially of beleaguered France. An influential 1917 magazine offered a lavish 16-page series of photographs featuring French sights “to help perpetuate…the bond of romantic affection” linking America to France. During the following war, when Adolf Hitler posed for pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, bestsellers like The last time I saw Paris built the United States’ commitment to fighting Germany with travel writings that portrayed France as part of Americans’ own heritage.
International travel can help build solidarity with other countries. Tourists aren’t great at following specific political talking points, but tourism has historically instilled a sense of foreign places that matter to the United States.
What does the political nature of tourism mean today? For starters, Americans with the ability to travel abroad should think more deliberately about combining politics and pleasure when choosing their destinations. NATO’s self-defense clause forces the United States to risk World War III for the security of countries like Estonia. I guess few Americans could locate Estonia on a map. Next summer, why not skip Paris or Rome and visit Estonia’s charming capital, Tallinn? Learning more about new NATO members will help Americans develop more informed opinions about the risks and benefits of their country’s foreign engagements.
Government officials themselves should pay more attention to tourism’s ability to nurture these bonds of affection. The American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan has called on the Taiwanese government to welcome more foreign tourists for “national security” reasons. The US government would be wise to give tourism similar attention. When it comes to popular culture, politicians usually focus on what’s new. That’s why, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden White House held a briefing for TikTok influencers. As far as I know, the Biden White House has not reached out to the travel industry or the millions of tourists heading overseas this summer. The president cannot encourage tourists to support his policies, but he can encourage them to listen and learn from our allies abroad.
Washington can also help make foreign travel accessible to more Americans. In an age of polarization, international travel remains refreshingly bipartisan. According to a 2021 survey, 41% of Democrats and 38% of Republicans said they had a valid passport. But that percentage drops to 21% of Americans whose annual income is less than $50,000. In 1949, highly respected journalist Norman Cousins called for government grants to help poorer Americans travel abroad. Washington could follow that advice today by waiving passport fees and bolstering exchange programs for low-income Americans, not as a form of charity, but as a way to broaden Americans’ engagement in foreign policy.
Holidays abroad have always involved politics alongside leisure and escape. Your next vacation in itself won’t change the world, but it will be part of the next chapter in international history.