Where Americans Want to Visit and Where They’re Really Going

Australia Day Perth

I can be a little geeky at times and when it comes to travel, I love studying the ins and outs of the industry. Sure, it helps me better do my job, but I also just think it’s a fascinating subject. Every year there are what feels like thousands of surveys all designed to shed light on where people want to travel, how they travel and why. I pour through these and sometimes even write about them. Usually I write about the aspirational surveys, where Americans most want to go if money were no object. I think it’s a fascinating reflection of society and, frankly, what sort of job international tourism marketing boards are doing. The other day I found a new report, this one showing what countries have recently benefited most from a surge of American travelers. These international destinations are not where most Americans visit overseas, instead though they are countries that have seen the greatest uptick in American tourists. What that means is that, for whatever reason, they have broken through our collective consciousness and have started the process of imprinting themselves on our travel sensibilities. Again, let’s be clear, countries like Ireland, Canada and the UK are where most of us go when we board a plane destined for far away places. These aren’t those countries, but I do think it’s fascinating to take a look at what they are and why Americans suddenly have an interest in exploring them. I also think it’s worthwhile to compare them with the countries Americans would go if time and money were no object, because the two lists could not be more different.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Surging Destinations

Seeing nearly 50% more tourists from the US in 2017, Israel’s top ranking on the list surprised me a bit, although I’m not entirely sure why. Part of this increase has to do with how the survey collected results. It’s from a travel insurance review and comparison company and they can only monitor insurance policies taken out. According to their records, travelers to Israel purchasing policies increased nearly 50%. But that also correlates with overall tourism figures from Israel, which saw a large increase in tourism in 2017, with the US leading the way. So, back to the original question, why? It’s not necessarily heritage or familial tourism as 50% self-identified as Christian. What is interesting is that of those 50%, a quarter further identified as pilgrims and Jerusalem was the most popular destination within the country. Having visited myself, I can well understand the appeal. While my time in the country was brief, it was incredibly memorable and still ranks among my most favorite trips ever. It’s partly because, while not religious myself, I have always been fascinated by all religions and frankly, for someone like me there’s no better place in the world to visit than Jerusalem. Impossibly sacred to three major world religions, the city drips with history in a way no other in the world can manage. It’s astounding and, when added to the many other sites around the country – Tel Aviv, Dead Sea, Haifa, etc. – Israel does indeed make for a fantastic trip. The likely cause for the sharp uptick though are improved air connections and a more coordinated marketing strategy.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Next on the list should surprise no one and, as such, I’m only going to briefly mention it – Iceland. Iceland has catapulted itself to the top of the tourism scene in a way I doubt any other country has ever managed to do. With many air options from the US, the flights tend to be short, you can find great deals and the desire to visit is strong. Open up Instagram and you’ll be inundated with thousands of photos heralding the beauty of the country from the waterfalls to glaciers and everything in between. Add in some notoriety from “Game of Thrones,” and it’s obvious to me why everyone wants to go. I myself have been 4 times and can’t wait to return. One thing to note though is that it’s getting more and more expensive. The average trip cost has gone up dramatically in just the last 2-3 years and I doubt it’ll plateau anytime soon.

Portugal also found its way on the list, which is interesting. For years I’ve heard the promise that it’s the next “break out” country, an up and comer if there ever was one. Except, it still hasn’t up and come. With few direct links from the US and no mentions of it in our popular culture, we just don’t know much about the country; certainly not enough to make us want to visit. I suspect that it made its way on this list because of the low baseline. Since the number of US tourists wasn’t high, any increase is significant.

Number four on the list is the increasingly popular Southeast Asian country, Vietnam. Again, this may be due to the fact that the numbers come from insurance policies, but I’m certainly not surprised to hear of the increase. Americans like visiting Southeast Asia and with Thailand becoming more and more popular, I think tourists are looking for either secondary or new places to visit. Although I’ve never been fortunate enough to visit, I would love to after having seen so many gorgeous photos of the countryside, beaches and vibrant cities.

Alta Norway

The final entrant onto the list is Norway, clearly still benefiting from the “Frozen” effect. But I also think that Norway has done the best job of any Scandinavian country in marketing itself to the US audience. I hear about Norway all the time, while Sweden and Denmark are quiet in US marketing efforts. Add to that truly amazing experiences that you can only enjoy in Norway, and I think it’s a worthy addition to the list. What is most interesting to me though is how much more money Americans spend in Norway compared to prior years. American travelers to Norway spend twice as much as they do in the other 4 destinations. Part of that is because Norway is an almost shockingly expensive country to visit; everything costs a lot from a Diet Coke to hotel rooms. I also think though that it’s because many of the experiences are experiential and adventurous. Americans are willing to spend more to see the Northern Lights, cruise the fjords or spend the night in an ice hotel.

Whitsundays Queensland Australia

Where Americans Want to Visit

While these places are great, if given their druthers it’s not where Americans would really go. 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.

If that now infamous Crocodile Dundee Super Bowl ad taught us anything, it’s that Americans love Australia, which is why it has topped this list for so many years. 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.

Sligo ireland

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.

Le Meridien Bora Bora Tahiti

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. 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 surveys do 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 these surveys give 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.

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