Best-selling travel guide author, the host of multiple travel TV shows and radio programs: if you’ve ever even thought about traveling, you’ve come across Rick Steves.
Just a few years ago, Steves came out with his television special The Holy Land: Israel and Palestine Today, and now he has an updated version of his best-selling book, Travel as a Political Act.
BookTrib was able to sit down with Steves to chat about travel, how the news changes perceptions of the world, and that one country everyone should visit.
BookTrib: Travel As A Political Act is such a great title, and really powerful, too. Tell us about your own traveling experiences and what the title means to you?
Rick Steves: “Travel as a Political Act” means traveling to learn, to acquire a broader perspective, and when you come home, to use what you’ve learned to help bring about positive change. I once had an opportunity to hang out on the beach for a family vacation in the ritzy Mexican resort of Mazatlán. Then, some friends invited me to join them for a trip to the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, to remember Archbishop Oscar Romero on the 25th anniversary of his assassination. But there was one problem: It was during the same week.
For my vacation, I opted for El Salvador— to share a bunkbed dorm, eat rice and beans, and march with the Salvadorans in honor of their martyred hero who stood up to what they consider American imperialism. Among many things, I learned firsthand that there are good people waging heroic struggles all over the world… some of them against our country. El Salvador was far more memorable to me than a beach vacation. As a traveler, you always have the option to choose challenging and educational destinations— to choose transformational travel.
Travel becomes a political act only if you act— if you do something positive with your broadened perspective once you return home. While we may have different wattage in our light bulbs, we can all bring light to our communities: by voting as if our world depended on it, by donating time or money to worthwhile causes, by seeking out balanced journalism, by promoting sustainability, by confronting problems cooperatively, and by traveling. Keep on traveling.
BookTrib: The main travel concern for many is safety. A lot of people rely on stereotypes when deciding to travel to somewhere new. Do you think this is something that is blown out of proportion?
RS: If all you care about is safety, you’d rush to Europe in a heartbeat. Here are the facts: Year after year, about 12 million Americans go to Europe. How many are killed by terrorists? Think through the several high-profile terrorist events in Europe: the 2004 Madrid bombing, the 2005 subway bombing in London, the 2015 shooting in Paris nightclubs, the 2016 Brussels bombings and truck rampages in Nice and Berlin, and the 2017 truck and stabbing rampage in London.
In all of those events combined — tragic though they were — fewer than 10 American tourists were killed out of more than 150 million trips. I’ll take those odds.
When people tell me “Have a safe trip,” I’m inclined to say, “Well, you have a safe stay-at- home,” because where I’m going is much safer statistically (and I know statistics are optional these days) than where they’re staying. Really, Europeans laugh out loud when they hear Americans are staying home for safety reasons. It makes absolutely no sense. But then that’s not unusual in our society lately.
BookTrib: You have a chapter in this book on Israel and Palestine, both of which you’ve traveled to. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences there, and where you think the conflict may be headed?
RS: When either side of a conflict hardens their stance and when other countries jump in to increase the divide, it makes compromise and reconciliation that much harder to achieve. I see the current impasse as counter-productive. Adding Israeli settlements in Palestine and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will not promote peaceful coexistence but rather flame the fire of discord.
When I visited the Holy Land to film my public-television special, ‘The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today‘, I saw cause for concern and cause for hope. If you visit, make a point to talk with both sides. Pilgrims who visit the Holy Land to “walk where Jesus walked” seldom walk with the people Jesus walked with.
I met with Israelis and Palestinians. I was invited into their homes and visited their sacred sites. Sadly, I rarely had an opportunity to meet with Israelis and Palestinians together. A physical wall separates them. I sensed that the younger generation on both sides wanted to get beyond the baggage of their parents and connect. But with this barrier, there’s literally no common ground where people from opposite sides can come together. Walls are ugly. They may be necessary at times, but they represent a diplomatic failure.
BookTrib: How do you think the news has affected people’s perception of the world outside of their native lands?
RS: Our news industry has changed over the years, from providing balanced journalism to sensationalizing the news. Today’s media are focused on reaching as many eyeballs as possible to maximize their profit. If not enough people are watching, they’re desperate to boost viewership. So they sex it up, bloody it up, and crisis it up until enough people watch. The result: commercial TV news has become entertainment masquerading as news. As the news becomes more sensationalized, viewers become more fearful— of different people, different faiths, different countries. Some viewers think that walls and bans will help keep us safe. In the long run, the transformation of news from information to entertainment makes us fearful, threatens the fabric of our democracy…and, ironically, actually makes our country less safe.
My travels have taught me to have a healthy skepticism toward those who peddle sensationalized news and misinformation to generate fear. Fear is a tool used to keep a people down. And in so many cases, I’ve learned that fear is for people who don’t get out much. The flipside of fear is understanding—and we gain understanding through travel.
BookTrib: When did you first start traveling and how did you get into traveling enough to make a career out of it?
RS: My dad ran a piano store, and he took our family to Europe on a business trip when I was 14. I didn’t want to go. But my eyes and my perspective were opened in ways I would never have imagined. I met with an old man who told me about having witnessed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914— I was thrilled by history as never before.
I took a life-changing trip after high school graduation with my friend Gene Openshaw. And after that I kept on traveling, went to college, and taught piano. I took a class on travel and realized how important information is for people planning a trip. I started teaching a class about European travel. At some point, I had to choose, either teach piano or teach travel. I’m thankful I made the choice I did. As for how I turned it into a career, I led minibus tours to Europe, wrote tour handbooks that turned into my guidebooks, and over the years, added more tours, guidebooks, and staff, plus a public television series and a public radio show. I feel fortunate to have the help of a well-traveled staff who understand my mission, and technology beyond my wildest dreams to amplify my teaching. My mission has always been about teaching and broadening perspectives.
BookTrib: Is there one place you think everyone, at some point in their lives, should travel to?
RS: That’s an interesting question: I love Italy, Turkey, India… there are so many places. But in light of “Travel as a Political Act,” I’d suggest that you travel to a place—whatever place—that’s just beyond your comfort zone…a place that wouldn’t normally make the top of your list. Visit to challenge yourself: Find similarities and differences with the USA and make connections with the people you meet. Worried about refugees? Visit Germany. Concerned about Muslims? Go to Turkey. Wonder why Israelis and Palestinians can’t get along? Visit the Holy Land. Think all Mexicans want to come to America? Visit Mexico beyond the resorts. Feel our taxes are too high? Head to Scandinavia. Threatened by communism? Go to Cuba. One of the great joys of travel are the rich insights you gain by talking with the people you meet. Always build connections instead of walls.
BookTrib: What do you think is the most important thing to remember when traveling?
RS: When we travel, we enrich our lives and better understand our place on this planet. People-to-people connections help us learn that we can disagree respectfully and coexist peacefully. We undercut groups that sow fear, hatred, and mistrust. Our travels can better equip us to address and help resolve the many challenges facing our world.
When you travel with that attitude, you bring home what I consider the greatest souvenir: a broader perspective. And when you implement that outlook back home, you are making travel a political act. And I think that has never been more important. Happy travels!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Guidebook author and travel TV host Rick Steves is America’s most respected authority on European travel. Rick took his first trip to Europe in 1969, visiting piano factories with his father, a piano importer. As an 18-year-old, Rick began traveling on his own, funding his trips by teaching piano lessons. In 1976, he started his business, Rick Steves’ Europe, which has grown from a one-man operation to a company with a staff of 100 full-time, well-travelled employees at his headquarters in Washington state. There he produces more than 50 guidebooks on European travel, America’s most popular travel series on public television, a weekly hour-long national public radio show, a weekly syndicated column, and free travel information available through his travel center and ricksteves.com. Rick Steves’ Europe also runs a successful European tour program. Rick Steves lives and works in his hometown of Edmonds, Washington. His office window overlooks his old junior high school.