Why Australia isn't really a nation of globetrotting travellers

The scene could not have been more Scottish: the icy blue stillness of Loch Lomond hugged by rolling, heather-covered hills; the old pub standing sentinel on its shores, its warm interior wrapped in tartan wallpaper studded with faded photos; the wooden bar with its hand-pulled beer taps.

My mate and I sidled up to that bar, all ready to order something appropriately Scottish, hoping the bartender would understand our accents, hoping we could make sense of his rough brogue, when he turned and flashed us a wide smile.

A nation of travellers? We seem to despise people now for having even considered it.

"G'day guys! How's it goin'?"

An Australian. Of course. Of course we would travel out here to the middle of Scottish nowhere, to a tiny pub on the shores of a loch, hoping for a haggis supper and a pint of Belhaven Best, and find ourselves being served by a bloke from Wagga Wagga.

That's how it is with Australians: you find us everywhere. Every hostel you've ever been to, every tour you've ever done, every bar you've ever drunk at, everywhere in the world, there will be Australians. And that will come as no surprise to you, either, because you know that Australians are inveterate travellers, you know we all love nothing better than an adventure, you know we get out there and explore more than probably anyone on the planet.

And yet… Is that actually true? Are we really so hardcore? Are we really so itinerant?

Here's a stat that might surprise you: only 57 per cent of Australian citizens own a passport. That means almost half of all Australians have absolutely no intention of going overseas any time soon (even if they could). None whatsoever. One in two people here just doesn't travel overseas. Ever.

Those of us who do travel, of course, travel passionately and widely. But there aren't anywhere near as many of us as you might think.

Let's compare Australia to a few other nations around the world. In Canada, 64.4 per cent of citizens own a passport – almost two-thirds of the population. In New Zealand, 70 per cent of citizens hold one of those powerful little pamphlets. In the United Kingdom, 76 per cent hold a British passport; only 17 per cent of citizens have no passport at all.

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Even the Americans, who legend has it have no interest in the outside world whatsoever, are close to us, with 42 per cent passport holders (up from only 10 per cent in 1994).

So, have we got this wrong? Is it time to rethink the Australian persona? In the same way we Australians like to think of ourselves as a totally non-racist country that just happens to celebrate its national day on the date the colonial powers arrived, is the myth of the Australian traveller really just that?

Maybe now is a good time to reconsider this. Maybe, as an increasing number of us reconsider our attitude to Australia Day, we could also reconsider our assumed national traits and wonder if they really reflect who we are today.

A nation of travellers. Australian exceptionalism. You assume this to be true for a variety of reasons, the strongest of which is probably confirmation bias. If you believe Australians are extraordinary travellers who you are likely to meet anywhere you go, then you will notice them when you do.

It's also natural to recognise your compatriots more readily overseas, it's understandable that the presence of a familiar accent will be a far more important marker of your day than running into a third or fourth German citizen. We tend not to notice other nationalities so readily, not to take in the fact that for every Australian you hear there's probably also a Canadian, and an American, and a Dutchie, and three or four Kiwis.

The truth is that Australians just aren't exceptional travellers. Once, we probably were. Back in the '70s and '80s when travel had yet to go mainstream and people were hitting the banana pancake trail through the three "Ks" – Kabul, Kathmandu and Khao San Road – then, we were probably exceptional. We were hardcore.

Now, however, we're just part of the masses. A small part too, when you consider our population.

For more evidence that travel isn't such a vital cog in our national machine, just look at us during the COVID-19 crisis. Plenty of us are locked into our own states now, pretty much unable to travel at all – and there's very little complaint. No dramas, we say. All good.

And look at our attitude towards those Australian citizens trying to get home from overseas, look at the lack of empathy for those who have left our shores and now need to return. A nation of travellers? We seem to despise people now for having even considered it.

You might ask what all this means. Or really, who cares?

But this is a perfect chance to understand who we really are, and to understand our place in the world, to better approach it when we have the chance to go back out and see it again. Travel doesn't mark Australians out as different, and we shouldn't act as if it does. We're not the world-leading example of passionate adventurers or worldly jet-setters.

If anything, that's the Kiwis. New Zealanders know how to travel. Canadians too. And you know for sure that when you're out in the world next time you will run into Chinese travellers and Koreans, that you'll meet people from India and from Russia, that without a doubt there will be Germans and the Dutch.

Maybe it won't register as surprising or exciting when you wander into a pub in the middle of nowhere in deepest Scotland and you're greeted with, say, a Polish accent – but it's worth taking in.

A lot of people travel. We're just one of the crowd.

Are you surprised by how many Australians don't own a passport? Do you think we're a nation of exceptional travellers? Or has the rest of the world caught up? Do you notice a lot of other Australians when you travel?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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