Q&A: Rick Steves on How (and Why) to Make Traveling a Political Act

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While TV host and travel writer Rick Steves is one of the world’s foremost expert on European excursions, don’t look to his new book for the most luxurious hotel in Barcelona, freshest baguette in Paris, or the logistics of London’s tube.  In Travel as a Political Act, Steves has provided a manifesto on how to live in the world. “Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped," he writes. “It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world."  Steves has circumnavigated the globe and he reports back, with his usual warmth and insight, in chapters like “Heavily Taxed and Highly Content Denmark” to “The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today” and “Resurrection in El Salvador.”  Steves took a break from his adventures to connect with The National and reflect on traveling with intention and an open mind.

Q: Your book seems guided by the idea that you hope to inspire readers to “travel more purposefully.”  What do you say to people who say that they just want to relax on a beach? Or that they don’t like museums?

A: I have no problem with a nice, relaxing vacation. I just took a beach vacation in Mexico. But that's not really travel--that's hedonism. And I have no problem with hedonism. But I want to nudge people to make room for some purposeful travel, too. If you look at the bestselling guidebooks in the USA, the only books that sell better than mine are ones to Walt Disney World and Las Vegas.

Clearly that’s the first choice for lots of Americans. But someone who travels "on purpose" has an appetite for reality, and that’s what my company targets in its travels: not La-La Land, but the real world. And it's not just about museums.

While gaining an appreciation for art and history enhances your travel, you could argue that's just one step. Another--and I believe higher--step is grappling with social issues in the places you visit, with a goal of broadening your perspective. When we do that, we come home smarter, changed, and more empathetic with the struggles of people far away.

Q: One theme of your book involves the rewards of connecting with others. But for those who don’t speak other languages, how does that work? Are English-speakers limited to English-speaking countries?

A: It's nothing to brag about, but I speak only English. And I've had all of the experiences I write about in my book--from Montenegro to El Salvador to Iran to Ireland to Morocco--speaking only English. English is the world's common language, so it's easier than you might think. Still, especially in places where English is rare, I'm a big believer in hiring a guide who can translate both the language and the cultural experience. Fortunately, the places where English is least common are also the places where guides are the most affordable. Most of the experiences I write about in my book came alongside a talented guide.

Q: You wrote the first edition in this book in the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration and the world has changed dramatically since then. How has your advice on travel evolved?

A: The fundamentals of traveling as a political act haven't changed at all. But the context we're traveling in has changed tremendously--and, in some ways, there's never been a more fascinating or important time to mix and mingle with the other 96 percent of humanity.

Q: Do you have advice for those who may be uncomfortable travelling to countries where the rich and poor gap is especially deep? Say, resorts with luxury beaches but with poverty outside the gates?

A: This is something I struggle with personally. My advice is to challenge yourself to go (in safe ways) beyond those gates. The sad thing is, even many of the people who live in those countries surround themselves with gates. I've long said, even if you’re motivated only by greed, if you know what’s good for you, you don’t want to be filthy rich in a desperately poor world. And going beyond those gates is the best way to really understand issues of poverty. I've been to El Salvador several times, always on educational tours that expose me to all sides of that complicated and struggling society--from a squatters' settlement of corrugated-tin-roof shacks next to a huge landfill, to the private mansions of captains of industry.

One time I visited one of several top-end malls serving San Salvador's wealthy. People who live in gated communities treat malls--which have a kind of Disneyland fantasy aura--as a safe "city center." I started chatting with a young Salvadoran couple, and it became clear that, on my brief visits as a bleeding-heart tourist, I had experienced more of their own city than they had. They were actually asking me questions about the place they lived! Anyone can have this experience.

They just have to decide to spend at least some of their vacation time in Managua rather than Mazatlán. Or, if going to Mazatlán, budget a day or two for an educational tour. I do want to stress, however, that you need to take safety concerns seriously. For example, I had a wonderful visit to Egypt a couple of years ago, and I believe I really did get out and engage "the real Egypt," but I was mindful of the necessity to go with a trained guide who knew how to keep me out of trouble, and to stay in a hotel that gave me a safe refuge each night.

Q: You’ve traveled extensively in Turkey and Morocco. What recommendations do you have for learning about Islam? And, should there be concern about traveling beyond the cities, particularly in Erdoğan’s Turkey?

A: I can't stress enough how important it is to learn about Islam in moderate, secular countries like Turkey, Morocco, and the Muslim parts of Bosnia--all of which I write about in this book. Particularly in this day and age, as our government specifically targets Muslim immigrants to keep out, it's important to get to know ordinary, everyday Muslims to understand that they are good people, just like us. Turkey is one of my favorite countries, period, because it's an ideal classroom for better understanding our world.

My company has offered tours in Turkey, in good times and bad, since before the first Gulf War--because I believe in the importance of exposing Americans to that beautiful culture. We had to suspend our Turkey tours briefly last year, due to some visa problems. But as soon as we felt it was reliable and responsible, we resumed them. Yes, things are unpredictable these days in Erdoğan Turkey. But American travelers are not the ones "at risk"--it's my Turkish friends who are tempted to speak out against Erdoğan that I worry about.

American friends of mine who've been to Turkey recently say that, in some ways, there's never been a better time to visit: The tourism industry is struggling, which means that the few hardy travelers going there are enjoying both bargain prices and even warmer welcomes than usual. And I would not be afraid to get outside of the cities. In fact, some of my favorite experiences in Turkey have taken place in villages, where fragile traditions are the most vivid. I love the obscure little village of Güzelyurt, where I take my company's Turkey tours to meet local families and experience rich cultural traditions. Morocco, which is currently ruled by a progressive king, is--if anything--getting easier and easier to travel in.

Q: Around the world, there seems to be an increasing anti-American sentiment. What recommendations to you have to travelers?

A: I've seen this ebb and flow over the course of my career. What's happening right now isn't really that unusual. In some ways, the anger many nations felt toward George W. Bush's America and its ill-advised wars in the Middle East--which took the lives of many of our allies, who we shamed into following us into battle--was stronger than anything I hear about Trump. But that doesn't mean the world looks kindly on our president.

I can speak most knowledgably about Europe. And it's clear that many Europeans view the “America first” election of Donald Trump as a sign that we've gone back to the more ethnocentric days of George W. Bush. Europeans understand—far better than Americans do—that oddball political figures sometimes rise to the top. But they aren't used to seeing it in the US. And they can't fathom how someone who loses the popular vote by nearly 3 million people can still become president.

Also, Europeans may be a little confused because the cross-section of Americans they meet are travelers, who tend to skew to the left. But at the end of the day, I’ve found that Europeans consider it polite not to talk politics unless you break the ice. In other words, if you are a Trump supporter and don’t want to get in an argument, just avoid the topic—or, if you enjoy a good debate, you’ve come to the right continent. And if you’re a liberal and want lots of friends, tell them what you think about Trump. For an American in Europe, two new skills might be handy: an ability to explain how the Electoral College works...and a good eye-roll.

Q: Do you see that Brexit has made travel more challenging?

A: I don't think travel has changed at all because of Brexit. And in many ways, travelers to the United Kingdom can turn it into a plus: Brexit is a fascinating conversation-starter. Walk into any pub, order a pint, stand at the bar, strike up a conversation with your neighbor, and just ask "What's the deal with Brexit?" And bob's your uncle--you have an evening's worth of lively banter. I don't want to be cavalier about Brexit. The details are still being negotiated, and in the end, it will likely cause a lot of stress and change for people who live in the United Kingdom…or it may not even ever happen. But for travelers--even if we disagree with it--there's no real downside.

Q: What about traveling in America? You advise: “For a High-Contrast Look at Your Own Country… Leave It.” Are there a few places in America that you think everyone should visit?

A: You know, I get to see lots of our beautiful country as I travel to do book tours, speaking engagements, pledge drives for public television, travel trade shows, and campaign events for marijuana legalization. And I just love going to a place--particularly a smaller city or town--and learning all about its local pride.

Did you know Hoagy Carmichael was from Bloomington, Indiana? Neither did I, until I went there to deliver a speech. I guess I don't have any places in particular where I think everyone should visit, because it depends on where you are coming from. While the best way to get that "high-contrast look" at your country is to leave it, you can achieve something similar by challenging your comfort zone and going to a domestic destination that's the opposite of where you live.

If you live in a blue-state coastal city, visit red-state farmland...or vice-versa. If your hometown is grappling with a societal problem, find out which city has a smart solution for that problem, and check it out. If you're terrified that legal marijuana will tear apart your community, visit one of the many states where marijuana is legal and find out if the sky is actually falling. If you can't afford to travel to a Muslim country like Turkey or Morocco, go to an American city with a large Muslim population, and get to know it. Or find out if your own city has a Muslim community. There are plenty of ways to "travel on purpose" even in our own country.

Q: Finally, what about those “---hole” countries about which President Trump spoke? 

A: I think "---hole Diplomacy" speaks for itself.