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Travel Restrictions on Americans Erode a Sense of Passport Privilege

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LONDON — Five American travelers who set out for a getaway on Sardinia were turned away last week after their private jet landed on the Mediterranean island. In Canada, two Americans were fined for flouting tougher entry restrictions imposed by their northern neighbor.

And in Mexico, governors are pleading with the central government to introduce tighter restrictions on travelers from the United States to help prevent the spread of the virus.

While coronavirus travel restrictions may vary from country to country, much of the world is united in one aspect of their current response: Travelers from the United States are not welcome.

A U.S. passport, long seen as a golden ticket to visa-free travel in much of the world, has long provided its holders with the ability to trot around the globe with ease. Now, that sense of passport privilege Americans are used to is fading.

“This is shocking, to see one of the most advanced countries in the world be put in the slow lane of the global reopening,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London research institution for international affairs.

Mr. Niblett said the fading power of the American passport was not surprising “given that America’s health care system is decentralized, unpredictable and unequal” and given how the virus continues to spread unabated in large portions of the country.

In a world where pandemic travel restrictions are excluding people from countries with uncontrolled coronavirus outbreaks, and where the United States continues to set daily records of new cases, the long-lauded American passport, once a symbol of power and exceptionalism, is becoming stigmatized.

Until the recent restrictions, the U.S. passport had long provided its holders with an outsize sense of freedom that was the envy of others. The restrictions that Americans now face are “something that much of the rest of the world knows very well,” Mr. Kochenov said.

Some Americans say they have been surprised by the shift in perception toward American travelers during the pandemic, expressing concerns that it could be damaging, at least symbolically.

Vincent Rajkumar, a professor of medicine in Minnesota who became a U.S. citizen 15 years ago, said he has always been in awe of how the country’s passport had opened doors that were once shut to him.

During a trip to Australia in January, he was alarmed that passengers were being questioned extensively about whether they had been to China.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m so glad I have a U.S. passport, this is never going to happen to me,’” he said. “And then in the past two months, this is dawning on me — ‘This is going to happen to us. This is happening to us.’”

ShaDonna Jackson, a photographer from Maryland who has been vocal on social media about seeking dual citizenship, said she was spurred to act in part by the new restrictions on U.S. travelers.

“The perception of the U.S. right now in terms of how safe people are with the coronavirus spreading — I see how it can be scary to other countries,” she said.

At the Mexican border, there has also been a stark reversal. Typically on the receiving end of border restrictions, Mexico, alarmed by the spiking infection rate in the United States, has moved to stem the flow of Americans into the country.

Mexican states set up “sanitary filters”along the border during the July 4 weekend to check visitors’ temperatures and turn away anyone whose trip was not deemed essential. Officials in Mexican border states have pushed for more aggressive steps to reduce crossings.

Mr. Kochenov pointed out that simply focusing on the erosion of freedoms for American travelers missed the bigger picture. Many countries have introduced internal travel restrictions that limit movement among regions, states or other local jurisdictions.

And most of the current restrictions are expected to be temporary. Americans may not like having their travels limited for now, but it is likely to be for the short term. Others will continue to face a tougher reality.

“The majority of the population of the world will never be able to fly to Europe no matter what,” Mr. Kochenov said, because of visa restrictions or lack of money.

“The pandemic simply demonstrates to Americans what the rest of the world has already known about the main function of nationality in the world.”

Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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