Since 1976, Rick Steves has been encouraging his fellow Americans to travel through tours, guidebooks, newspaper columns, radio shows and a popular PBS TV program.
But these days, the affable host is interested in more than just sharing advice on where to find the best pizza in Italy. He wants people to understand the power of travel and how it can lead to better lives for all of us. That’s the focus of his book Travel as a Political Act, now in its second edition. In it, he documents his trips to places such as the Holy Land, Iran and Turkey and discusses how they changed how he sees the world – all with the hopes of encouraging others to open their minds as well.
During a recent stop in Toronto, he spoke to The Globe and Mail about the importance of meeting people, the negatives of travel boycotts and why it’s safer than ever to go exploring.
How did you come up with the concept for book?
This book is the field studies of what made me who I am intellectually as far as my worldview. It’s a collection of the places I’ve gone that got me out of my comfort zone, whether it’s talking with people who pay high taxes in Norway, talking with people who sell marijuana in Amsterdam, talking to people in Central America who don’t see their civil war as communist against capitalists like I thought, but as land rights and the remnants of colonialism, talking with Basque people who don’t think it’s fair that when they drew the line they said, “You guys speak French, you guys speak Spanish.” Americans don’t know this stuff.
The first version was published in 2009. Why did you decide to update it?
We were going to make an audio version of the book and I said, “I’m not making an audio guide without updating it.” Because after Trump got elected, things really changed. You got Brexit, you got Erdogan, you got Viktor Orban, you got Trump and you got a new dynamic in Central America. People ask me “Should I go to England? Is it okay?” Americans just never get a grip on what is the real risk of things. Americans are so fragile from their worldview because they haven’t travelled.
Why don’t Americans travel?
Some people think it’s more patriotic to stay home, invest in our own economy. They think if you care about your country, you’ll travel around it and you’ll enjoy it and go canoeing in Minnesota. Or visit Nashville and enjoy our music or go to Florida and the beach. Some people hate a second of anxiety. Some people don’t think they’re going to be received warmly. And mostly, people just think it’s dangerous. And those are all concerns of somebody who has never travelled. Because once you travel, you realize it’s safe, it’s friendly. It’s like that famous slogan: If you never travel, it’s like having a book and never turning the page.
How do you reach those people? How do you convince them to go and see the world?
It’s cathartic, I think, for Americans to see somebody standing on a stage telling them terrorism is overrated. I can just feel it as a speaker. People kind of go, “Did he say that? Is that okay, for somebody to say, terrorism is overrated? Can I relax about this?” You know, it’s okay. Are you as an individual safe in Belfast or Paris? Or Bilbao? Or Istanbul? Yes, you are. Period. And I can stand here and say you’re safer now on the road as an American than at any time in my whole life. And how would I know that? Well, I’ve spent four months a year for the last 30 years travelling. I take 30,000 people into Europe every year. I’ve got 100 guides that are Europeans and we meet every year talking about this.
This book is making the case for travel as a way of changing political views and learning about people different from us. Do you think there’s ever a case to be made for not travelling as political act? To say, I’m not going to support this country’s human rights records or their LGBTQ laws.
I’ve been tuned into these kind of concerns for 30 years in my capacity as a tour guide. And every year, there is concern about: Should we go to Russia because they’re so homophobic? Should we go to Turkey because they're locking up journalists? If people say don’t go there, the point is to boycott them, right? Because why would you give money to, say, Iran? They hate us.
But at what cost is your boycott? The cost is not getting to know them and humanizing them, and not letting them get to know us and not circumventing governments and not making it about people to people. Because by making it about people to people, it then makes it tougher for their propaganda to demonize Americans. And when you come home, it makes it tougher for your country’s propaganda to dehumanize Iranians. And then when we go to war with Iran, you’re going to be more up in arms because you’ve got friends there and you realize these bombs are messing up real people. If you don’t go there, you don’t think about that. Americans who don’t travel have no sense. They don’t even think about the collateral damage. They’re just all Muslims, right? Just saying that makes me sad right now.
I’m an American taxpayer. And being an honest, ethical, American taxpayer, I know that every American bomb that drops and every bullet that flies has my name on it. It comes with a huge responsibility. And I cannot shirk that responsibility. That’s my assessment of what responsible citizenship is. And that’s a heavy, heavy dose to lay on people who come to hear me talking about travel. But I can stand up in front of a crowd of thoughtful people and challenge them with these ideas and blame my travels.
How do you feel about Airbnb and other disruptors that are really encouraging those people-to-people connections?
Whether it’s Airbnb or Uber or whatever, people-to-people is great travel. My mark of a good traveller is: How many people are they meeting? Not that person who sells you postcards or that the person who does the step dancing on stage, but real people that you’re gonna have a beer with in a pub in Scotland. That’s what distinguishes your trip.
But you have to deal with the ethical issue about Airbnb gutting the character of neighbourhoods, because everybody wants to stay in Las Ramblas. Everybody wants to stay in the Old Town centre, right? The local pensioners are driven out to the suburbs and the cute little places that were cute because people lived there morph into places where nobody lives. And suddenly, the market in Las Ramblas is not catering to pensioners that want to buy avocados and cockles, but tourists who want to buy a slushy and a skewer of fancy fruits. In my last guidebook, I said Las Ramblas, RIP. I’m not going to get into the big ethical fight about Airbnb, but you should know that it changes the character of neighbourhoods.
Overtourism in places such as Barcelona and Venice is a real issue. Do you feel any sense of responsibility having urged people to visit these places for so many years?
I’ve ruined a lot of cute little towns if ruined is taking them from poor and simple to boutique. Because there’s an evolution when they get tourism. They have boutique guest houses, bed and breakfasts and nice cafés and restaurants and shops. And suddenly, they’re not slaving away in the vineyards making mediocre wine, but they’re making good money entertaining tourists. I’m thinking of the Cinque Terre.
When I go there, locals are so excited and they are conniving to get into the book. And the tourists are having a blast. It’s not the place I discovered, no, because it’s a whole different experience. I’ve met some tourists that were a little upset with me because they wish I would have told only them. It doesn’t work that way. I’m the hired gun of American travellers who are going to Europe and want to do something other than Portofino. So I’m finding alternatives to Portofino.
This interview has been condensed and edited.