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The Days of US Passport Dominance May Be Over

by Eben Diskin May 29, 2020

Telling Americans they can’t travel to Europe this summer is like telling a high school kid he can’t buy a ticket to prom because he flunked health science. Americans don’t take “no” very well. And why should they? The US passport grants access to 184 of the world’s 195 countries, and Americans have grown pretty comfortable viewing the world like a neighbor’s yard with no fence and no trespassing laws. Thanks to the US’s poor response to the pandemic, however, that reality is about to change.

Freedom of travel feels like something engraved in our Bill of Rights — an amendment that says, “Americans can go wherever they want without filling out any dumb paperwork.” But travel was never an inalienable right. It’s a privilege that can be revoked. European countries are starting to welcome tourists again, only now there are bouncers at the door. Once, Americans were the group of well-heeled, attractive women guaranteed entry to any nightclub. Now they’re more like the group of out-of-shape, desperate men who definitely aren’t on the list.

In the throes of the pandemic, the US lost the one thing that made its passport so strong: trust. International travel is a relationship like any other, built on mutual trust and respect. Falling woefully short in its containment, mitigation, and testing of the coronavirus, the US shirked its obligation to the international community. Now, instead of sending tourists abroad whose only danger is spreading the Yankees hat fashion trend, the US is sending untested travelers who might be asymptomatically spreading coronavirus. And you can’t blame other countries for telling us, “Yeah, we’re full,” while simultaneously waving a group of New Zealanders through the velvet ropes.

The problem of American “freedoms”

Every country in the world has lived under travel restrictions during the pandemic. But in the US, these restrictions aren’t just inconvenient — they feel contrary to our national identity.

Americans cling to “freedom” as a distinctly American ideal, as if other free countries are just infringing on our intellectual property. Freedom is America’s civic religion. It’s at the heart of our American exceptionalism, and when someone tries to take it away, we risk becoming, well … unexceptional. That’s why the travel ban hits us so hard.

Our problem with freedom is that we have trouble distinguishing between “rights” and “privileges.” When privileges are taken away, even temporarily, it threatens the national myth that Americans can do whatever they want and go wherever they want. If freedom of travel isn’t guaranteed, then we may wonder what other freedoms aren’t guaranteed.

Some countries, like Spain, have already announced that visitors from high-risk countries won’t be permitted. Greece has released its list of who will be allowed to enter from June 15, and the US isn’t on it. Others may impose two-week quarantines on visitors from high-infection countries, which would be prohibitive to most leisure travel. Whatever the new regulations, more doors will be closed to American travelers than ever before. But for many countries, this has been a frustrating reality for years.

Wildan Adani, a relationship manager at a Jakarta bank, described the complex process of traveling abroad with an Indonesian passport.

“Visa requirements are different for every country,” he told Matador Network. “Generally, the consulate will ask for a valid passport, visa application form, itinerary with proof of plane tickets and hotel bookings, and the visa application fee. Sometimes they even ask for proof of occupation from your current workplace. And if you plan to stay with a friend abroad, you must supply a recommendation letter from that friend.”

Sometimes, prospective travelers aren’t just asked for documents but also in-person interviews.

According to a 30-year-old Istanbul resident, who chose to remain anonymous, Turkish passport holders are required to supply detailed itineraries for most international trips and show up at the consulate for an interview.

“You first visit the consulate’s website,” he said, “and check which documents are required to visit the country, including itinerary information, plane tickets, train tickets, and accommodation bookings. Once submitted, you wait for approval. If approved, they invite you for an interview, and if you pass, you’re good to go. I’m used to it. You have to do it in my country.”

For many passport-holders around the world, the luxury of visa-free travel is simply unheard of. It’s a time-consuming process, especially when it comes to traveling to the US. Though the doors of the world may typically be open to US citizens, our own door is padlocked with 16 deadbolts and a gatekeeper asking for a secret password.

Even Europeans, whose passports are among the world’s strongest, have to jump through hoops to visit the US. Marie-Louise Deutschmann, a university student in Linz, Austria, discussed the tedious process of getting an ESTA for her last trip to the US.

“Depending on the duration of my stay,” she said, “I either have to apply for an ESTA or a visa. To apply for an ESTA, I need to provide personal information, emergency contact, a personal ID number, employer address and phone number, and contact info for where I’m staying in the US. The visa is only necessary if my ESTA is denied or if I plan to stay longer than 90 days. There are also different types of visas depending on the purpose of your travel — B-1, J-1, CW-1, D, O, Q, B-2.”

Adani, an avid traveler, has always wanted to visit the US but postponed his trip several times due to the difficulty of obtaining entry.

“The US is the country I most want to visit, but I don’t want to deal with the hassle of applying for a visa,” he said. “They will ask to come to the embassy for an interview; the visa fee is expensive, it takes a month to process, and there’s no guarantee that the visa will be approved.”

An opportunity to focus on domestic travel

Americans might be denied entry to some countries during the pandemic, but no one is suggesting the US passport will become worthless. Our travel freedoms will be restored to us eventually, but in the interim, we have a unique opportunity to explore our own backyards. No, not the same backyard you’ve been pacing restlessly since quarantine started.

An abundance of history, natural beauty, and diverse cultures are available here at home, and it’s much more accessible, and safer if you can forgo a plane, than traveling abroad right now. The US draws around 80 million visitors each year, and that’s not just because of the Statue of Liberty. Deadwood, South Dakota, might sound a lot less sexy than Bali, but this is the perfect opportunity to take that cross-country road trip you keep postponing and discover more of your own country.

Adani, who longs for a trip to the US, envies the ease of our domestic travel.

“The US has so many awesome spots for traveling,” he said. “It’s like six countries in one. I think US citizens should start paying attention to domestic destinations and explore their own country. Once this pandemic is over, and if I can figure out the paperwork, it’s the first place I’ll be going.”

Gabrielle Nicholson, duty manager at a Dubai-based hotel group, told Matador Network that domestic “staycations” are on the rise, and people around the world are learning to appreciate the beauty within their own borders.

“International travel restrictions may be disappointing for Americans at the outset,” she said, “But ultimately I think it will encourage a rise in domestic travel. We are seeing an increasing trend for ‘staycations’ here in the UAE, with many residents opting to visit hotels in their local area for a weekend break.”

International travel bans are disappointing no matter where you’re from. But they’re forcing people around the world to look domestically for adventure, perhaps for the very first time. And with the ethical quandaries of international travel concerning public health — not just government restrictions — staying home is a good thing, even if the notion of “home” expands to the other side of the country.

Restrictions make you appreciate travel

American travelers live in a world of “yes.” It’s an enviable position we should appreciate more than we do, and sometimes we need to be reminded how lucky we are. That means hearing the occasional “no.” We may hold our US passports close to our hearts, but this period of restriction — however long it may last — forces us to take a step back and view the world through the lens of a passport that doesn’t have the bald eagle crest.

“As an Indonesian citizen,” said Adani, “I can’t travel as freely as Americans or Europeans do. But this has actually made me appreciate traveling more due to the added effort, expense, and the anxious feeling on whether or not your visa will be approved or not. When you arrive at your destination, the experience sinks into you more, and you have more fun while it lasts.”

Many EU citizens endured some of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Now that their borders are opening, they’re looking at traveling through new eyes.

“I think that I’ll travel a bit more thoughtfully,” Deutschmann said. “I took it for granted to just hop on the plane [from Austria] and go wherever I wanted to. I think it’s important to realize that traveling is a huge privilege.”

Some countries will always enjoy greater travel freedoms than others, and this pandemic won’t change that. But maybe, when all the doors are flung open again, we’ll realize how lucky we are to have a universal key and treat the destinations we visit with an increased respect.

Until then, what does it mean to be American in a time when freedom of movement is limited? It means waiting in line with everyone else. It means listening to the bouncer at the door when he tells you to wear a facemask. It means restoring our relationship with the rest of the world and earning back their trust.

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