Op-Ed: Tourists have more influence on politics and foreign relations than you think

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FILE - A passenger arrives from a flight at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Vaccinated travelers can now enter Britain without taking any coronavirus tests. Starting Friday, Feb. 11, 2022 British residents and visitors who have had at least two doses of a coronavirus vaccine now only need to fill out a passenger locator form before traveling to the U.K. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
A passenger at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

As the United States sends stockpiles of weapons to Ukraine, another transatlantic mobilization is underway. Freed from two years of COVID restrictions, Americans are once again traveling in large numbers. Market observers have predicted a six-fold increase in American tourism to Europe.

If you’re wondering what shipments of weapons and planeloads of tourists have in common, the answer is: Quite a bit. Tourism has long had a way of getting mixed up in international politics.

It is easy to overlook tourism’s political importance. The goal is usually to escape news headlines, not study them in detail.

Tourism is also easy to dismiss as a superficial activity involving pre-packaged, staged encounters. The word “tourist” began in the 18th century as a neutral synonym for “traveler,” but cultural sophisticates soon turned the word into an insult. Starting in the mid-19th century, self-declared travelers sought to bolster their own cultural status by ridiculing tourists as thoughtless sheep. As popular historian Daniel J. Boorstin put it in his 1962 book, “The Image,” the rise of convenient transportation across the oceans rendered travel experiences “diluted, contrived, prefabricated.” According to Boorstin, a genuine traveler takes risks and interacts with locals, while tourists merely follow someone else’s script.

It’s a mistake to stereotype tourists in this way. The historical record shows that tourists are pretty good at thinking for themselves. My research uncovered many examples. Here is one: Exactly 70 years ago, at the height of American McCarthyism and as the Korean War raged and the Iron Curtain divided Europe, the U.S. government decided to coach tourists on how to prepare for encounters with communists and their supporters.

At the time, grassroots communist movements thrived in Western Europe, and many of the waiters and chambermaids serving Americans in France’s luxury restaurants and hotels belonged to communist labor unions. So the U.S. Information Agency, working with civic organizations, saturated travel agencies and airlines with a booklet, “What Should I Know When I Travel Abroad?” If Americans met a Western European who wanted to negotiate with Moscow, the booklet suggested a polite but firm response: “It seems to us that in the fight between what is right and what is wrong there just isn’t room for neutralism.”

Actual tourists, however, didn’t follow the script. The USIA interviewed several hundred Americans in their homes after their 1952 trips. Most appreciated the booklet, and 70% claimed they read it cover to cover. Still, the government’s diplomatic experts found troubling signs. When it came to explaining something as basic as “America’s concern with Communism,” the report found Americans “ill-equipped.” Alarmingly, the USIA learned that Americans took “a less-determined stand” on European neutralism than their government’s recommendation. Fully one-third said that their travels helped them understand European desires for negotiating with the Soviets. One tourist admitted to the USIA, “I couldn’t say anything. I could only sympathize.”

Indeed, international travel can help build solidarity with other countries — and even instill a sense of which foreign places matter to the United States. When World War I erupted, wealthy Americans who had traveled to Europe before the war became the most vocal advocates for U.S. entry into the conflict. One influential magazine in 1917 offered a lavish 16-page photograph spread showcasing French tourist sites “to help perpetuate … the bond of romantic affection” linking America to France. During World War II, bestselling books like Elliot Paul’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris” bolstered U.S. commitment for fighting Germany with travel writing that described France as part of Americans’ own heritage.

What does the political nature of tourism mean for today? For starters, Americans with the ability to travel abroad could think more deliberately about combining politics with pleasure when choosing their destinations. NATO’s self-defense clause obliges the United States to defend the safety of countries like Estonia. Next summer, why not skip Paris and visit Estonia’s charming capital, Tallinn? Learning about all NATO members could help Americans develop more informed opinions on the risks and rewards of their nation’s foreign commitments.

Government officials themselves should give more attention to tourism’s ability to sustain those bonds of affection. The president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan, for instance, has called on Taiwan’s government to welcome more foreign tourists as a matter of “national security.” The Biden administration hasn’t focused much on the travel industry or the millions of tourists heading abroad this summer, but the president could encourage them to listen to and learn from our allies.

Washington can also help make foreign travel accessible for more Americans. In an age of polarization, international travel remains bipartisan. According to a 2021 survey, 41% of Democrats and 38% of Republicans reported having a valid passport. But that percentage drops to 21% for Americans with annual incomes under $50,000. Washington could waive passport fees and bolster exchange programs to help broaden engagement with foreign policy.

Overseas travel has always involved politics alongside leisure and escapism. Presidents and special envoys might dominate the headlines, but ordinary tourists can also shape diplomacy, one vacation at a time.

Christopher Endy teaches cultural and political history at Cal State Los Angeles. He is the author of "Cold War Holidays: American Tourism in France." This article was produced in partnership with Zócalo Public Square.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.