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The Great American Passport Myth: Why Just 3.5% Of Us Travel Overseas!

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For folks that journey abroad occasionally and engage in conversation with fellow international travelers, we have all heard the statements: Why don't Americans travel more? How come only 10% have passports?

Well, like most good stories told in bars (and campaigns), from Horatio Alger, that 47 percent of Americans don't pay any taxes, to the old liberal media bias canard, they are of course myths, believed by many, erroneous nonetheless. (Sorry... It seems that I am a little caught up in the hysterics of the presidential election!)

We know that fewer and fewer respond to facts nowadays -- even fact checkers have biases -- but the facts are that of the 311 million U.S. residents, there are over 109 million valid U.S. passports in circulation according to the State Department.

Doing the proper math (I know arithmetic... more facts!) would mean that about 35 percent of Americans have passports. And I believe it is actually more!

Why more? Well, there are 40 million foreign-born U.S. residents -- 20 percent whom have immigrated (legally I might add) since 2005. They needed passports to get here, and that would mean an additional 8 million passport holders. Further, because of the 40 million foreign-born U.S. residents, about 43 percent have become naturalized U.S. citizens. That means that on the high side, there may be an additional 22.5 million foreign passport holders in the United States.

That makes about 131 million U.S. residents passport holders -- about 42 percent! A far cry from the 10% accusation.

That does not answer the real question, Why don't Americans travel more? And by travel, I think they mean overseas travel, going abroad to foreign lands.

In my new book (due May 2013) entitled America's Vacation Deficit Disorder, I researched that issue, and here is what I found: We may not travel as much as the people of some nations, but we travel more than the people of most nations.

Again, here are the messy facts:

The portrait of Americans traveling overseas -- and by overseas again I mean just that, going overseas, not just to either one of our contiguous northern or southern neighbors, Canada or Mexico -- is multipart high math.

Latest poll numbers -- is there an anti-American travel bias in them? -- reveal that fewer and fewer U.S. residents are even interested in international trips, dropping to just nine percent of all leisure travelers today (versus 11 percent last year), according to MMGY Global/Harrison Group 2012 Portrait of American Travelers.

The year 2009 represents the high water mark for Americans traveling overseas with just over 30 million individual trips to various overseas destinations. So, 30 million, that's 10 percent of us traveling overseas a year. Seems right?

Wrong! That is not the real picture, because like many numbers (i.e. 47 percent of Americans don't pay any taxes) this one is extremely deceiving too.

In fact, when you examine the statistics and thoughtfully dissect them -- not something we knee-jerk political junkies are good at! -- what we find is a very different picture that reveals that only about 14.6 million American residents actually traveled overseas in 2009. Why you ask are these numbers so different than the larger 30.3 million actual trips taken number? Well here's why...

Yes, there were 30,300,000 individual trips overseas in 2009...of which 6.2 million (21%) were classified as business trips (investors, customers, suppliers, conferences and conventions), conducted by some 256,000 first-time overseas business travelers, and the remaining 6 million trips were taken by just 2 million tried and true high-frequency business travelers (aka road warriors well-versed in gaming their frequent-flier awards) who averaged three overseas trips in 2009.

On the leisure side, we get similar results showing even more pronounced peculiarities.

Of the 30.3 million total outbound individual trips in 2009, 25.8 million (79% of all) were leisure trips or the visiting of friends and relatives overseas. But again, that is not the whole story...

The real story is that when broken down, those 25.8 million trips overseas were taken by approximately just 13.3 million American residents. And that means that in total, the real number of Americans that actually traveled (took trips) overseas in 2009 for either business or leisure, was about 15.5 million --o r just five percent of our nation's 311 million residents!

How did I get that number you ask? It is the high water mark in my analysis and reached by simple arithmetic: of the 25,876,000 leisure overseas trips taken, we know that seven percent were made by newbies, about 2 million first-time overseas travelers; the remaining 23.8 million overseas trips were taken by folks visiting family and friends (43% of all such trips), students studying abroad (4% of such trips), and, yes, by good old fashion vacation travelers (47% of overseas trips). Based on the average number of trips per year taken by these travelers (about 2.1 trips overseas in 2009), that means approximately 11.3 million repeat travelers made those 23.8 million overseas leisure trips.

All total, that is about 12.3 million U.S. overseas leisure travelers added to the 2.3 million business travelers -- that's approximately 14.6 million U.S. overseas travelers a year -- less than five percent of all U.S. residents! And I believe that this is the best-case scenario, because, again as I further think it through, it could be significantly less. Why?

Because of so-called High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI's)--Yep, you knew those 1%ers would enter the conversation!--who travel significantly more often than the normal overseas American leisure and business travelers do.

These Jet Setters (many with their own jets) total about 6.5 million Americans (okay 2%-ers) who have annual incomes in excess of $150,000. The 3+ million more with net worths of at least $1 million take an inordinate number of annual trips, as can be imagined with their high disposable income. An estimated 60% of all HNWI's take five or more business trips a year -- with almost 34% saying they take 10 or more business trips a year! And 33% of HNWI's take five or more leisure trips annually, with 11 percent taking more than 20 leisure trips a year!

These facts would entail shifting my above 14.6 million overseas travelers calculation downward by as much as 15-20% in my mind.

Meaning that if we took those HNWI's traveling ways into account less than 14.6 million Americans actually traveled overseas in 2009 -- maybe as low as just 11.6 million, or about 3.5% of all U.S. residents.

So, what kind of portrait does this paint about Americans overseas travelers? Well, this can be said: somewhere between 11.6 and 14.6 million Americans actually traveled overseas in 2009, taking a trip lasting on average seven nights (students and travelers visiting family and friends stay significantly longer) and usually visiting just one country. These four major geographic areas are our most likely destinations: Europe (35% of all U.S. trips), Caribbean (21% of all trips), Asia (19% of all trips) and South America (9% of all trips).

America's most popular overseas countries are: England (9% of all trips), France (7%), Italy (7%), Germany (5%), Dominican Republic (5%), Jamaica (5%), Japan (4%), China (4%), India (4%) and Spain (4%). Other significant countries visited include: Bahamas (3%) and Costa Rica (3%). With just six percent of Americans trips going to the Middle East, and even fewer, just three percent, visiting the whole continent of Africa, and two percent going to Australia/New Zealand.

There you have it, myths, travel, high math and politics all in one piece! Don't forget to vote... and make a comment below too!