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.

Thanks, Rick.

Happy travels.

6 Comments for Interview with Rick Steves: ‘Travel as a Political Act’

BeccaHare 05.14.09 | 1:34 AM ET

Having lived in the Middle East from the mid-70’s until the mid-80’s I can relate to Rich Steves’s philosophy of traveling to explore one’s internal landscape. Tehran was my first home away from home and ultimately became my favorite of all places. The people were endlessly hospitable because they followed an ancient tradition of making strangers feel comfortable. This was during the Shah’s reign. There were limits put on my American values and freedoms. However, I was respected my status as expatriate “guest.” During my decade which included living in Egypt, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Iran, I learned a life lessons that still resonate. One such lesson was the difference between my desirements and my requirements. Before living in Maadi, an expat suburb of Cairo, I thought i needed measuring cups and special spoons to cook. What I discovered, was a simple teaspoon, and a drinking class, could be adapted as “standard” units of measure. My chocolate chip cookies, made with chopped Lindt chocolate we simply heaven!

Grizzly Bear Mom 05.14.09 | 8:45 AM ET

I think that world over pretty much everyone wants to fill their kids tummies, and make love to their spouse.  It is the wacko (government/religious/what have you) leaders that set us against each other.  Think kyou own thoughts.  Question everything.  Fear and guilt emmake prisoners us of all.

Terry Ward 05.14.09 | 12:30 PM ET

Nice interview, Jim. I wish choosing Tehran over Tacoma was that easy! I looked into getting an Iranian visa last year, and as an American you have to go with a guided tour group, short stay only, and shell out a pretty penny for the obligatory guide services. I say we send our resident Canadian on assignment there to tell us what it’s like! I’ve heard wonderful things about Iranians from people who have traveled in Iran. 05.14.09 | 1:06 PM ET

Great interview with Rick.  I watched his PBS special when he went to Iran.  He’s right that most Americans are clueless when it comes to the Middle East or other countries.  Many people don’t know that Iran was formerly known as Persia; Iraq was formerly known as Mesopotamia.  Americans should be grateful that we’re not dealing with the rulers of these two areas of centuries past.  It would be a different story!

It can take sometime to get a VISA to Iran and other countries.  I guess this is where patience comes into play.  If you network with other travelers and travel writers, you could make some great connections that can help you travel sooner to Iran or other countries.

Lindsay 05.20.09 | 10:17 AM ET

I told my mother last night that I’d be traveling next year to Lebanon and Jordan and she blew her top. I am going to show her this article…not that it will help, but its a start.

Powered by Tofu 05.26.09 | 5:41 PM ET

I watched the Rick Steves “Travel As a Politcal Act” segment on DVD, so wondering how much more is covered in the book. Anyone? The DVD was excellent… funny and insightful. I kept getting the same responses he talked about, when people found out I was headed to Turkey and Morocco. I think it’s more the fear of the unknown than anything else.

Lindsay, are you going solo?  I found as a solo female travel that Intrepid Travel has some great trips to the Middle East (and it’s not hand-holding type trips).  Here’s my pro/con list of traveling with Intrepid/GAP Adventures:

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.