Don't wish too hard, your wishes just might come true, someone once warned. As a travel publisher, we're used to being blamed for all sorts of things — 'that little fishing village was quiet and beautiful until you put it in your book, look at it now, it's become an over-run resort.' Well yes, but there was a new airport built right beside it and there's now a string of hotels down the beach. I don't think it all happened because we gave it a paragraph in our guidebook.
So I don't think the chaos in US passport offices, which I've been reading about every day for the last week, is because last year Lonely Planet published a book subtitled 52 Reasons to Have a Passport, our attempt to persuade more Americans to get one. One of the fundamental 'good things' about travel (I'll touch on the big bad thing about travel in a future blog) is that it's a huge motivator for understanding. When somebody visits a country, they almost always discover it's a better place than they thought it would be. Which is one reason it's a big disappointment that visitor numbers to the US are only increasingly slowly, when so much of the world is enjoying a tourist boom. The world could do with more people having more positive feelings about the USA today.
In fact there are some very good explanations for why so few Americans, comparatively speaking, have been passport holders. Australians are about three times more likely to hold a passport than Americans and the percentage of people holding a passport rises even higher for some nationalities. More than 70% of the Dutch have passports, for example. But you can't travel 50 miles from Amsterdam without going 'overseas,' while there's an awful lot of America for Americans to explore without a passport, not to mention, until recently, Canada, Mexico, and many places in the Caribbean. Which is, of course, where the current problem started.
Once the law was passed, it was plainly obvious that far more Americans were going to apply for passports. So how did the State Department screw up so badly? Their own website announces that 'between 15 and 16 million US citizens visit Mexico each year,' so it should have been easy to calculate how many of those didn't have a passport last year and would need one this year. Repeat the exercise for Canada and those Caribbean islands and you'd quickly come up with a pretty good 'extra passports' figure. It's not rocket science.
Still, I've often said that governments and tourism are mutually incompatible. Lots of American tourism operators, state and local tourist offices, airlines, hotels and so on are trying to persuade more foreign visitors to come to the USA while overseas lots of potential visitors are hearing horror stories about the Department of Homeland Security and thinking, 'No, I'll go somewhere else this year.'
2. My passport lives in a plastic sleeve produced by a South Korean student travel agency and bookshop known as 'Shoestring Travel' — yes, they got the name from our Southeast Asia guidebook. If you look closely at the cover there's a little cartoon of me, lounging back, looking at a guidebook and proclaiming, in fluent Korean, my connection with Lonely Planet.
Books mentioned in this post
Tony Wheeler is the author of Bad Lands (Travel Literature)