Rick Steves is America’s most respected authority on European travel. He recently answered questions about 21st century travel.
The European travel expert spoke to two sold out audiences in Sarasota in February. This was part of the Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall Lecture Series. As someone who has traveled the globe in a quest to create pockets of peace, sitting down with Rick Steves was a career highlight. His book, “Travel as a Political Act” (2009), serves as my philosophical guidebook during my adventures.
A Teenage Steves was Bitten by the Travel Bug
At 14 years old, Steves took his first trip to Europe when he and his family visited Norway. They spent time with family. Soon after turning 18, and with a few other trips under his belt, Steves decided he no longer needed his parents to travel. He traveled solo and funded trips by teaching piano lessons.
Rick Steves’ Europe (RSE) launched seven years after his initial European trip. The company has grown. It began as a one-man operation offering lectures on how to travel within Europe. Today, it’s a company staffed with more than 100 full-time employees. The RSE brand includes more than 80 books, a public television show, a weekly public radio show, a syndicated travel column, a tour operator that leads 30,000 travelers to Europe each year, and free travel information on the website www.ricksteves.com. Each year, Steves spends four months in Europe updating his guidebooks and gathering content.
Finding Europe’s Backdoors
Most of Steves’ publications help Americans navigate Europe through finding its backdoors. During the 1980s, Americans were hungry for budget travel tips and his guides reflected this. In the 1990s, his guidebooks and television show focused on teaching appreciation of art, history, and cuisine. And then, September 11 happened, and Americans were saddled with fear. In the decades he traveled, he recognized travelling abroad opened new opportunities. His lectures, shows, books, and writings shifted to encouraging Americans to get over their ethnocentricity. He wants Americans to view travel as a political act.
Travel as a Political Act
“Travel as a Political Act” emphasizes immersion, education, and interaction rather than observing as a bystander. Steves encourages travelers to embark on educational journeys, push their comfort boundaries, and keep an open mind when vacationing. This leads to a more rewarding experience. Travel as a Political Act is one of my favorite books.
“My mission is to inspire and equip Americans to venture beyond Orlando! There’s only one guidebook that outsells my Italy guidebook and it’s the guidebook to Disney World,” Steves quipped while noting there is nothing wrong with amusement parks. It is a form of escape travel, but it is not reality.
“If you never traveled, you might think people who use spoons and forks were more civilized than people who use their fingers or chopsticks. But we’re not the norm. We’re not more civilized. We’re one third of the planet,” Steves said. He pointed out one third of the world uses their fingers and the other third uses chopsticks to eat.
Why Don’t Americans Travel?
Steves names fear as one of the reasons Americans do not travel. He noted how we no longer say “bon voyage” to someone heading out on a trip and now say, “have a safe trip.”
“When somebody tells me, ‘have a safe trip,’ I’m inclined to say, ‘you have a safe stay at home, because where I’m going is safer than where you’re staying’,” he said, and added, “If you knew the statistics, and I know statistics are optional these days, but if you knew the statistics, you would take your kids to Europe tomorrow.”
He as an idea where this fear originates.
“Fear is for people who don’t get out very much and the most frightened people are the people buried deep in the middle of our country with no passports whose worldview is shaped not by first-hand experience by going over there and making friends, but by letting the news media tell them how scary it is overseas.”
Advice on Traveling Within Your Zip Code
It takes money to travel and there are opportunities to experience other cultures without leaving our zip codes. Steves used an example of a Texas mother who was a recent guest on his radio show. Each week, she and her family studied a different country and cooked food from that country. Other opportunities for inbound culture include hosting people from other countries and participating in events and visit locations celebrating diversity and different cultures.
Impact of the Peer-to-Peer Economy
Travel has changed since Rick Steves’ first trip to Europe in 1969. I asked how the peer-to-peer economy, the Airbnbs, HomeAways, etc., are impacting European culture. These sites are great for a traveler’s budget.
“Airbnb is wonderful. You have many more options that are economic compared to a hotel and a better value than the hotel,” he said, “But there’s a downside from the neighborhood point of view in Europe.”
Some of Steves’ favorite European cities had a vibrant local community. In the age of the peer-to-peer economy, he has seen landlords push out the locals to make way for tourists and more money.
“The cute, historic districts are taken over by tourists and then the markets are no longer vibrant because they don’t sell to locals, they’re selling to tourists. And instead of the fish market, and the fruit market, and the produce market, you’ve got tourist shops selling slushies and exotic fruits on skewers and it messes it up,” Steves said. He cited La Rambla in Barcelona as a destination “ruined by Airbnb.”
He can tell when a town has a law stating residents need to live in their apartment. As opposed to renting their unit out. Steves said, “it’s a better community and I like to go to towns where you have a real community and a school and people living there.”
“You can really make a case that Airbnb, and those kind of services, have hurt the fabric of local communities,” he added.
Building Cultural Bridges
Making connections with people of other cultures creates a smaller world and better understanding of others. Steves noted in Europe, they have the Erasmus Programme that pays for students and teachers to travel and study or teach in foreign countries.
“They all gain a better empathy for each other. If you look at the European currency it doesn’t have walls on it, it has bridges on it and I’m all about building bridges and not building walls.”
Travel and Climate Change
Bringing 30,000 travelers to Europe each year contributes to climate change and Steves’ has two solutions. One is do not travel to Europe. The second, more realistic solution, is investing in programs mitigating climate change. According to the tour operator, a roundtrip flight to Europe generates as much carbon dioxide as six months of driving a car.
“If you invest smartly $30 in some kind of a carbon plan or carbon-smart agriculture, you will mitigate one person’s flight to Europe and back,” he said. Doing the math, in 2019 he gave himself “a self-imposed carbon tax of $1 million” and gave it to 11 organizations working on “climate-smart agriculture in the developing world.”
He hopes his contributions help poor farmers working in poor countries reduce their carbon dioxide contributions. Examples of climate-smart agriculture includes using energy efficiently, reducing the use of inorganic fertilizers, and energy-efficient cooking stoves. Steves encourages other tour operators to “steal’” the Rick Steves Climate Smart Commitment program. He wants them use it and create their own program for mitigating climate change.
To observe climate change, Steves says travelers can see it throughout Europe. He uses Germany as one of the examples, “Germany does not have air conditioning. Now they need air conditioning. It’s a challenge for travelers because we’re soft and we need air conditioning and Germany just never needed it. Now they need it. People didn’t used to eat outside in Germany, now they do, it’s a big culture.”
Bringing Back the Most Valuable Souvenir
“It’s kind of exciting for an American to realize the world’s not a pyramid with us on top and everybody else trying to figure it out. But we’re 4 percent of this planet, and we’re a beautiful 4 percent, but there’s another 96 percent that’s just as beautiful in God’s eyes,” the travel author said.
“When you travel, the most valuable souvenir you bring home is a broader perspective,” is a phrase Rick Steves emphasizes.
Rick Steves’ Europe
What does Rick Steves’ Europe offer? They offer tour operator services, guidebooks, seminars, public television show, public radio show, syndicated travel column, travel consulting, travel items, and Rick Steves Climate Smart Commitment program. Visit www.ricksteves.com.
As a point of disclosure, I am a board member of the Ringling College Library Association. Although I am currently not involved in the Town Hall Lecture Series Committee. Over the years, I have heard from and sat down with dozens of thought leaders and creative minds from around the world. Some share my views of the world, others challenge my ideals, and all broaden my perspective.
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