A few years ago an annual survey caught my attention and so I decided to write about its meaning and how I interpreted it. Every year Americans are surveyed on their travel plans and dreams. The survey seeks to learn both about where Americans are actually traveling and where they would most like to visit. It’s an interesting exercise because it shines a bright light on the American consciousness. It ultimately demonstrates our fears and hopes, our concern (or lack of) about the economy and how we view the world. In the four years since I’ve last written about the survey I was surprised to see a few changes in the list, shifting priorities resulting from an uncertain world and even the rise of social media in the travel experience. Today I thought I’d share some of the findings I find most interesting and offer my own thoughts along with them.
The perennial favorite, Australia is once again the winner when Americans list their #1 dream travel destination. At first blush this may surprise some folks. Australia is fairly far away; a long-haul flight is a challenge when most Americans don’t travel overseas at all. But it’s the unique spirit and attributes of the country that resonate so deeply with us as Americans, that we’d all be willing to withstand 13 hours in the air just to visit the Land Down Under. While the U.S. enjoys a special relationship with the U.K., I firmly believe that our cultural soul mate is Australia. Both countries were born of those not wanted anywhere else, both are roughly the same size, we both (sort of) speak the same language but, more importantly, we both enjoy the same spirit. Both cultures are daring, somewhat reckless and totally unapologetic. We love to explore our vast continents and to share those experiences with others. We’re both affable, gregarious and even created versions of football no one else in the world understands. No, if there’s a geopolitical twin in the world to the U.S., it is surely Australia. But it is so much more than being likeminded, traveling in Australia is the adventure most of us have always wanted. Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, cities like Sydney and Melbourne and incredible oddities so bizarre that they seem plucked from science fiction. Australia delivers in every way, which is why it’s my favorite country to visit. So, ultimately, it’s no surprise why most of my fellow citizens want so very badly to visit and once they do, if they’re like me, they’ll return many more times in an attempt to recapture that sense of adventure, if only briefly.
The I’s Have It
Of the top five dream destinations listed by Americans, I was surprised that only two were in Europe – Italy and Ireland. There are a couple of reasons for their inclusion, I believe. First is heritage. More people of Irish descent live in the U.S. than Ireland and the traditions and culture of Ireland have, over the years, permeated all aspects of American life. Add to that its close proximity, the fact they speak English and postcard-perfect landscapes and you have the makings of a dream destination. Italy also shares many of these same attributes, most notably heritage and how often we here in the U.S. hear about Italy. Rome, Venice and the Amalfi Coast are constantly featured in pop culture, much more so than most other countries in the world. Over the years this has made most of us dream of seeing these famous landmarks in person; to take a gondola along the Grand Canal and to stand in St. Peter’s Square. I was surprised though to see the U.K. missing from the top five list as well as Paris, but the two remaining spots are certainly all about bucket list travel.
Bora Bora and New Zealand
Keep in mind, the question was to name your ultimate dream travel destination. This wasn’t about current travel plans or even likely trips, but rather where one would go if time and money were no object. Australia, Italy and Ireland we have seen on the list, but the last two I think are true daydream destinations for most of us. Bora Bora should come as no surprise and I’m willing to bet that visiting French Polynesia is on the bucket lists of most people around the world. But it’s curious to consider why that is exactly. Paradise is an interesting mental construct and while it varies from person to person, there’s something almost innate to the human condition in which we consider the tropical perfection found in Bora Bora to be the ultimate in beauty. And from personal experience I can verify that it is indeed a gorgeous part of the world, as are many others though to be honest. But it’s beyond just the physical, I think it’s the remote nature, or what is perceived to be the remote nature, of Bora Bora that really attracts people. In a day and age when all of us are constantly connected to each other, the idea of spending some time totally removed, out of that digital data stream, is something too attractive to resist. I think that’s how we perceive Bora Bora to be and why it’s on the American top five destinations list.
New Zealand though is a different story and most likely Peter Jackson and a stellar tourism marketing team is to blame. The first installment of the Lord of the Rings franchise came out in 2001, and ever since then we here in the U.S. have been pummeled with amazing images of what appears to be a magical fairyland, but which is actually New Zealand. Gorgeous beaches, cloud-enshrouded mountains and glaciers abutting rainforests, it seems all too good to be true. Having visited I can assure everyone though that these places do in fact exist and that our feelings towards New Zealand are well warranted. It really is a destination unlike any other in the world, totally unique in almost every way and well worth the epic flight it takes to travel there. But just like Australia it fulfills our dream of incredible adventures, of going where few others have been before, regardless of whether it’s true or not.
Most non-Americans are very confused about the travel habits of my fellow citizens. They don’t understand why we have so little time off, why so few of us use that limited time off and why even fewer people ever leave the shores of the country. Maybe you just have to live here to understand it completely, but the survey did also provide some light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to American travel habits in the future. When asked if we’re nervous about how we will be perceived overseas in the current political climate, only a very small percentage said they had significant concerns. The other respondents didn’t seem to mind as much, which is promising. Aside from money and time, what keeps many Americans from actually visiting their wish-list destinations is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of foreign languages, fear of strange foods and fear of how they’ll be treated. Of course, after that first international trip those fears are almost always quashed, but it does keep millions from even attempting that trip in the first place. But this survey gives me hope that our attitudes are finally changing. Social media has helped in this process, as has the naturally global-minded nature of Millennials. Folks today aren’t as content with just going to Florida for a week in the summer. No, instead they want to trek the mountains of Iceland or enjoy a cruise to Cuba. They want to see and experience the world in a way no other generation of Americans ever has. Cheap flights and an interconnected world have finally made this possible and, with any luck, you’ll be seeing more and more of us in cafes and museums around the world in the years to come.