A Conversation With Rick Steves

Rick StevesRick Steves doesn’t want you to go to Orlando. For more than thirty years, Steves has been trying to sell Americans on leaving the country in his work as a tour guide, author and host of the PBS Series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” These days, Steves thinks that it’s more important than ever for Americans to travel overseas, both to broaden their own horizons and to serve as citizen diplomats who can help overcome stereotypes about America.

Steves, 57, still spends nearly four months each year researching his guidebooks on the ground in Europe, and says he’s not likely to retire anytime soon. His highly successful brand grew out of a love of travel that he inherited from his parents but evolved from his own wanderings after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in European History and Business.

After graduation, he returned to the university’s Experimental College to teach a class on budget travel in Europe, and in 1979, he self published the first edition of his now famous “Europe Through the Back Door” series. By the early ’80s, he was leading small minibus tours in Europe. Combining his two passions, he opened a piano teaching studio that gradually morphed into his travel business in Edmonds, Washington, his hometown.

Today, his company employs 80 people and thousands of his devotees swear by his guidebooks and tours. Steves is also an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, (he’s a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Washington State if victorious in the upcoming election) and thinks that Americans need to take more time off, even though he admits that he works all the time. We talked to him about Iran, unrest in the Middle East, his passion for Europe, and the importance of travel as a political act.

As we speak, there are protests all around the Muslim World over a film that denigrates Islam. Just as Americans don’t understand them, they can’t understand that this film doesn’t represent us, right?

It’s so clear. That’s why I’m on a mission. If I’m going to be able to contribute anything, it’s enabling and inspiring Americans to travel so that makes it tougher for other governments to demonize us, and it makes it harder for our government to demonize them. When you travel, it works both ways.

After someone has met an American in person, it might be a little easier for him or her to put a ridiculous video they saw on YouTube in context?

They’ll have a better understanding of who we are and they’ll be less likely to think our whole country is blaspheming their prophet. Christians have a little more of a sense of humor with these things but I believe we have to respect people’s sensitivities and cut them a little slack. It’s much, much deeper than them being angry about a video though. They don’t want their culture to be hijacked by aggressive Western values.

A woman in Iran came up to me and said, ‘We’re united, we’re strong and we just don’t want our little girls to be raised like Brittney Spears.”

This woman is scared to death that we’ll take over their country – to protect Israel or get access to their oil or whatever – and then we’d impose on them our values. If we all traveled, they’d have more understanding of us and we’d have more understanding of them.

Rick Steves in IranWas there any backlash for visiting Iran, a country that many Americans still regard as an enemy?

I thought I would get more but of all the edgy projects I’ve done it’s been one of the most positively received. We worked hard to do it without an agenda. There’s a small element in our country that says, ‘when you humanize them, you make our enemy more likeable, therefore you are evil.’ But I can’t consider the objections of people like that.

Do you think that you’ve have contributed to informing Americans that Iranians don’t hate America?

I feel it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve done. I’m just one person though and we’re just one small production company. I feel like we were ahead of the curve – our timing was right. The State Department gave me the Citizen Diplomat of the Year Award after that and I got a Lutheran Activist of the Year Award too. The show aired in every market in the U.S. many times, so for me that was very exciting.

If I produced a show on Iran and only people who are progressive and want to understand Iranians and appreciate their culture watched it, I wouldn’t have accomplished much. I wanted to produce a show that people who were predisposed to be angry with Iran and not want to better understand the people who put Ahmadinejad in power would watch so they would understand that it’s a more complicated reality than what they’d learned watching the Hostage Crisis on Nightline with Ted Koppel.

Three years later, though, there’s still a lot of sabre rattling and talk of bombing Iran. But once you’ve traveled to a country and made friends with people there, it’s a lot harder to talk about dropping bombs on them isn’t it?

Of course it is. A lot of Americans are angry at Libya for killing our Ambassador. Well, Libya didn’t kill our Ambassador – a bunch of loose cannons did. A traveler has a more sophisticated understanding of these things. It saddens me to see angry and destructive rhetoric coming out of Iran, and there are times when I consider that and think, ‘well, why did I help those people?’ But I know that Iranian people are in a difficult situation and they’re generally good people and there are complicated forces at work there that might make less sophisticated Americans think of them as our enemy.

I just thought that if more people would travel there, that would be really constructive. Unfortunately, not many Americans will travel there, but I can give them the vicarious travel experience.

Can you recommend Iran to Americans?

It’s like traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They want tourism – it brings in money. They think it helps people understand them better, but they don’t want people running around unescorted, so in order to get a visa you have to have a guide and your hotels arranged.

Given that, it’s wide open for tourism and it’s not that dicey. A lot of Europeans really enjoy going there; it’s a wonderful destination, as far as the culture, the food and the people go.

iran What’s the best payoff about visiting Iran?

If you’ve been to Iran, then every time you see it on TV, you know what’s not in the frame of the camera. It’s very easy from the news broadcaster’s point of view to zoom in on the intense stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and if they’re shaking their fists at us on TV, it seems like the whole country is shaking their fists at us.

You’ve written in the past about trying to understand the grievances of terrorists and other evildoers. Some regard that as treason, right?

If your big motivation is national security and your approach is ‘shoot first, ask questions later, it’s my way or the highway,’ and unilateralism and exceptionalism and all that stuff, (not understanding the enemy) is the worst thing you could do for national security.

I really think it’s a pragmatic thing to try to understand what motivates people. That’s not justifying or excusing what they did, that’s just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a billion Muslims in the world and a billion Christians. One thousand angry Muslims have breeched our consulates. OK, let’s figure that out, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose hope and all go crazy.

What other countries that we don’t have diplomatic relations with would you like to visit? Perhaps North Korea?

No, I don’t want to go to North Korea. My personal challenge would be to go to Palestine. I floated the idea of trying to do a show where we give Americans a better understanding of the roots of the Palestinian situation, but I think it would be even more of a challenge than doing the Iran show.

Why?

I think many Americans actually don’t want to learn more about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian problem because it might threaten their deep-seeded feelings and beliefs about it. I think it would be very complicated to do a show that gives people a better empathy for the struggles of the Palestinian people without pissing off a lot of people at the same time.

I wrote an article proposing that the best thing we could do for Israel’s national security is to give Palestine more dignity and fairness and people were really, really upset with that. I’m sympathetic to the situation Israel is in, but if we could help Palestine, we’d be giving Israel more security. It seems so obvious. But people just don’t want to go there. It would be a fun challenge to try making a ‘let’s humanize Palestine’ TV documentary though and I think I probably will in the next few years.

Your name is synonymous with Europe, but it seems as though you also want to turn people on to other destinations around the globe?

My favorite country is India but I’ve decided that my beat is Europe. I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration for Americans. If I can just help inspire and equip Americans to go to Portugal rather than Orlando again, to Morocco rather than Vegas again, to go to Turkey and suck on a hookah, and come home with a broader perspective, that’s a huge accomplishment. And that’s my mission.

Europe is a gateway to the rest of the world for Americans?

Right, then it’s, ‘let’s go to Thailand or Sri Lanka.’ Europe is the (first) big challenge. It’s amazing how many Americans are afraid to go to France because they don’t like us, or Portugal because it’s dirty, or Spain, because there are gypsies. Then you get there and realize, ‘hey, I had a great time and it didn’t cost that much and the world’s a big place, let’s go to Colombia.’

Our country is becoming less and less European and these days being called “Eurocentric” is a real insult. Is there anything wrong with being a Europhile?

I am proudly a Europhile and think anyone who is “anti-European” is driven by ethnocentrism and fear and naivety. You certainly don’t need to embrace European ideas or lifestyle, but to be anti-European is like being anti-culture or anti-broccoli.

istanbul in black and whiteI’ve heard you say that you like Bulgaria. What are some other under-the-radar spots you recommend in Europe?

I love Eastern Turkey, or anywhere in Turkey. Americans go to Istanbul, but they only see 5 percent of the city. Just take a bus to a far fringe of the city and spend a half-day wandering around.

I was just in Hamburg, Germany, and there are no Americans there. It’s really fun to go to cities that aren’t exotic but that Americans aren’t that interested in.

We were in the Greek isles this summer and there are lots of Americans in Santorini but essentially none in Syros, Samos, Patmos, Kos, and a host of other terrific Greek islands. How do we all end up in the same places, is it our guidebooks?

To me, Greece is the most touristed but least explored country. In Greece, some islands are touristy and they have lots of Europeans and multi-language menus and fun, fruity drinks and discos and others are pretty rustic and have just enough commerce to get you a Greek salad and some calamari, and the few tourists around at night are hanging out playing backgammon with the locals.

That really is a very rewarding slice of an otherwise touristy country. It’s not that tough – almost anywhere as a traveler – to make a left turn instead of going right as the guidebooks tell you and have a real experience.

So how do you encourage your readers to take your advice but also do their own thing?

In the introductory chapter to my guidebook “Europe Through the Back Door,” where I share my 40 favorite discoveries, I make the point that these are examples – don’t just march to these places, but let these places inspire you to find your own.

Having said that, Americans like to be spoon-fed, so that’s why a lot of people take the book and go exactly where I recommend, and that’s not all bad. But I always weave into my writing encouragement for people to go on their own cultural scavenger hunt. I’m not going to tell you to turn left at the fountain.

Travelers are gravitating away from guidebooks and toward user generated travel advice from Trip Advisor and a host of other sites. Has this dynamic changed the travel industry?

If you’re a restaurant or a hotel it’s dramatic. They’re brutalized by the power of sites like Trip Advisor. As a guidebook writer, I’m not threatened by this stuff. There are more than enough people out there who want information designed by a real traveler that has no agenda.

Internet sites that gather and share other peoples’ experiences are a real power though; there are a lot of people that design their whole trip around Trip Advisor. I had never visited Trip Advisor until about three months ago. It’s an impressive pile of information but I’ve been sifting through reader feedback for twenty years, so, while some of it is excellent and really helpful, I know how worthless most of it can be.

Rick Steves in SalzburgWhat’s your travel schedule like?

For the last twenty years I’ve been in a simple, clear rut. I spend four months in Europe – April and May in the Mediterranean, and then I go home in June. Then I go back for July and August north of the Alps. For 25 years, I was a tour guide but for the last ten years or so, I haven’t been leading tours. I dedicate my time to researching guidebooks and producing TV shows. This year I went to Leipzig, Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Hamburg for the first time and revisited lots of other places I’ve been writing about for decades. I spend two-thirds of my time researching guidebooks and one-third producing TV shows.

For me, the challenge is, do I want to find new frontiers for tourism or do I want to make sure that the places where most of the travelers go are well covered? It’s a tough call, because I’d like to go to the Ukraine, I’d like to go to Eastern Europe or do more in Northern Europe.

I can write a great self-guided tour for Paris or Florence or Vienna, and piles of people will use that. Or I can work really hard to get great information on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s trail across Northern Spain, but almost no one will use it. So I’m in a quandary. I’m supposed to be Mr. Back Door, going to places that are less popular, but where I can contribute the most is in places like Rome, Munich or Salzburg.

Are you too American to want to live in Europe full time, but too European to be content in the U.S. all year?

I would only live in the U.S.A. I really feel at home here. I am much more American than European even though I enjoy my work/mission of sharing a European perspective with Americans.

I understand that your son, Andy, is following in your footsteps with his own travel company?

While we took him to Europe every year of his life, I didn’t think he was destined to get into tour guiding and travel teaching. Travel didn’t seem to turn him on. But after he graduated from Notre Dame, he started his own tour business designing wonderful €200 three-day weekends for young Americans studying abroad. Now, through his company, Weekend Student Adventures, Andy’s taking hundreds of students on great tours in Europe’s top six cities.

He’s 25, promotes his business by giving free talks to universities anywhere he can and his tours are filled mostly with adventurous young women. He loves his work – just like me when I was that age. So the answer is yes. He’s over there now as I speak and I am really proud of him.

Where do you travel strictly for pleasure?

I like my work so much I don’t really need a vacation. I love to travel. I can work for 50 12-hour days in a row in Europe, and come home feeling younger and more energized than when I left.

What do you find most gratifying about your job?

I’m like a lifelong student. I love to learn. I have a European history degree. I like to connect good people with good entrepreneurs, and mom and pop kind of places in Europe. To help little businesses in Europe that deserve to thrive. I like to challenge Americans to get out of their comfort zones.

I wrote a book, “Travel as a Political Act.” I have enjoyed a huge new dimension to my work since 9/11. I think the role of a travel writer is to be the medieval jester. To get out there and find out what’s going on outside the castle, and come home and tell people what it’s all about. If I can inspire and equip people to do that, that’ll help America fit more comfortably on this ever-smaller planet.

My first guidebook, “Europe Through the Back Door” is in its 32nd year now, and I’m doing essentially the same thing I did way back then. And I’m thankful I’m not burning out. With so many great workmates to collaborate with and so much new technology to amplify our teaching, it’s more fun than ever. As long as I’m physically able to do this, I can’t stop.

[Photos courtesy of Rick Steves, seier and seier and Atilla 1000 on Flickr]