Interview with Rick Steves: ‘Travel as a Political Act’
Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the Europe travel guru about his new book -- and where Americans can go for a politically eye-opening experience
05.13.09 | 2:33 PM ET
Travel guru Rick Steves has built an empire around helping Americans discover the rewards of independent travel in Europe. He has never shied away from controversial political stances. Still, his new book, Travel as a Political Act, is a departure from the Rick Steves many PBS viewers know.
In it, Steves urges travelers to get out of their comfort zones and challenge their worldviews. Along the way, he reflects on his own journeys to countries such as El Salvador, the former Yugoslavia and Iran; he waxes philosophical; and he offers tips on overcoming fear. I caught up with Steves via email during one of his trips to Europe. His answers were preceded by the kind of note so many of us have tapped out on painfully unfamiliar keyboards: “jim, ive rushed out my response on a euro keybd below.” Perfect. (Though we’ve cleaned up the text here.)
World Hum: What exactly do you mean by the phrase “travel as a political act”? Just to be clear, you’re not talking about making a political statement by traveling, right?
Rick Steves: No. I am talking about travel impacting your political views. We are all more or less ethnocentric. This is not a good thing in our globalized society. Not all travel helps, but I believe when you consider travel a political act that broadens your perspective, that is helpful medicine.
What’s the biggest reward of travel as a political act?
It lets you celebrate rather than fear the diversity on this planet and realize that all people don’t have the same dreams. In fact, most people don’t have the American dream. They have their own dreams.
You urge travelers to be open to broadening their perspectives. Is being open to that something that comes naturally, or should travelers work to cultivate a sense of openness?
It’s more fun to travel as a cultural chameleon—embracing cultural norms of the places you’re visiting, not judging but trying to understand. I used to think poorly of Hindus for taking better care of their cows than their children. Then I went to India. I used to not care about why my bananas were so cheap. Then I went to Nicaragua. I thought fast service was good service. Then I went to France.
You write enthusiastically about your recent trip to Iran. Do you think it’s important for Americans to visit the Middle East today because it’s a source of political conflict? Or is a visit to London or Vienna or Istanbul just as potentially life-changing and eye-opening as a trip to Tehran?
I went to Iran not to promote travel there but to overcome my fears and misunderstandings and share the lessons I enjoyed with Americans through my PBS TV special. Travel to Iran is like smoking a Cuban cigar. It’s just a big deal for Americans. It is pathetic how little most Americans know about Iran and its people considering how hard our opinions are about that land. If you want to travel in a place that puts you steep on the learning curve, I can’t think of a better place than Iran.
While travel anywhere can have a constructive impact on your outlook, my experience is that travel to the developing world and to places that are on the receiving end of our nation’s media propaganda can be most vivid and challenging and valuable. While Nice is nice and I love Dublin, Munich and Boston, my richest travel experiences have been in Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iran and the USSR.
Any quick suggestions for places Americans can visit this summer for a particularly eye-opening perspective?
Just choose Tehran rather than Tacoma, Managua rather than Mazatlan, and expose yourself to people outside the tourist trade wherever you go and you will reap great rewards. In a week I’ll be in Bosnia walking among the war damaged towns with the children of those who were sniping at each other just a generation ago. I’ll be learning the value of people of different cultures and faiths living peacefully together.