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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Travel Is a Continuation of Politics

posted by on January 22 at 11:39 AM

Politics define certain industries. Free-range poultry versus chicken factories. Hybrid cars versus gas-guzzling SUVs. But travel?

“Eating five meals a day and still being able to snorkel—that’s not travel, that’s hedonism,” travel guru Rick Steves said last weekend at the Edmonds Center for the Arts. He told a room awash with Gore-tex and purple scarves that if people truly love travel—then they must travel to learn, to advocate for a different approach when they return.

“Is it a noble thing to do—to teach rich white people to travel?” Steves asked about 700 rich white people. Blank stares. He began with slides of Eastern Europeans twirling in town plazas and explained that those affable foreigners hold Fourth of July on different days of the year and they detest the U.S. for its recent audacity in foreign policy. And 700 people nodded. Then he showed a picture of a Scandinavian public restroom that has blue lights inside to prevent junkies from finding their veins and a picture of the syringe dispenser outside, and he spoke of the supervised heroin-injection facilities down the street and said there are fewer overdoses there. He talked about how many people in the Netherlands don’t drive cars at all, and we really need to consider doing these same things in the U.S. And the room became very quiet.


Rick Steves has a posse.

What’s remarkable is that not only is this not economic suicide for Steves’ business, Europe Through the Back Door, it’s helping. “They say, ‘I can’t believe you are saying these things. We will not use your guidebooks again,’” he said. “Fine, Europe will be more fun without you.” And everyone applauded. In fact, painting a trip to visit the cheese-eating surrender monkeys as a virtuous act has drawn crowds to his free events (this one was named Travel as a Political Act), which he holds three times a year, and draws new buyers to his books ($21.95) and clients for his tours ($3,595). His assistant tells me these free tri-annual presentations, press from his political positions, and his PBS show are the only way he promotes his multi-million dollar travel empire.

But it’s not just a ploy to generate press (though if it were, I guess it’s working). He says he’s negotiating with the U.N. to get permission to film his show in Iran. “My only goal is to humanize the country. We need to know who our government wants to bomb.”

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He really is an amazing guy. A great counterpoint to the superficiality and soulless commodification associated with the mainstream industry marketing "unique" travel destinations for people that really don't give a shit about actually learning about a place.

Lonely Planet bastards.

Posted by bma | January 22, 2008 11:44 AM


Posted by Soupytwist | January 22, 2008 11:50 AM

I totally agree with him 100%. Traveling should be about expanding your mind and your knowledge of the world around you, not lying on a beach at fucking Sandals.

And I would fucking LOVE to go to Iran. Bravo to Steves. We shouldn't be judged collectively for our fuckhead leadership, and neither should the Iranians.

Posted by Rotten666 | January 22, 2008 11:54 AM

I was in the audience for that session and the one before on Italy specifically.

The crowd was eating it up and they gave him a standing "O" at the end of the "Travel as a Political Act".

Posted by I was there too | January 22, 2008 12:03 PM

I love Rick Steves and think his guide books are exceptional. However there is a downside -- there were honestly more people from Seattle in the Cinque Terre than actual locals last autumn.

Posted by kid icarus | January 22, 2008 12:15 PM

Ok, so the guy kind of annoys me, but I think I just fell in love a little bit. So many people don't use their celebrity for anything except to make more money than they already have. Way to push an important issue.

Posted by Dianna | January 22, 2008 12:15 PM

hey, rick, i'm not traveling to iran until they stop hanging gays and stoning people to death for adultery. but good luck anyway.

Posted by scary tyler moore | January 22, 2008 12:22 PM

Me likee the new and improved Rick Steves. In point of fact, for years I stayed away from his guide books fearing they were like his TV shows. It always seemed Steves looked for the most touristy places and was a huge fan of gimmicky, tourist trap events like folk dancing festivals and sing-a-long beer halls.

Maybe he had to do that stuff in the beginning to broaden his appeal? I don't know. But you'll never catch me in Bavaria or Austria or Switzerland, say, checking out the slappin' lederhosen set. I want to know (1) where the local men are (2) where do locals hang when they feel like going out. Something tells me locals roll their eyes at folk dancing and sing-a-longs just like most Americans wouldn't want to be defined by square dancing and the Grand Ole Opry.

Posted by Bauhaus | January 22, 2008 12:23 PM

One of the things I appreciate about RS as opposed to most other "celebrities" who use the bully pulpit is that his celebrity actually comes from doing something that educates him about the subject he's discussing. I could give a fuck about what some actor thinks about the war, but RS is, for most intents and purposes, an incredibly experienced cultural anthropologist. That doesn't make him the authority, but at least he has some idea what the hell he's talking about.

Posted by Judah | January 22, 2008 12:34 PM

This is why I like Rick Steves. This isn't a new and improved version. He's being promoting the same message for years.

Posted by sprizee | January 22, 2008 12:36 PM

As long as Americans are only allowed 10 or so days of vacation a year, they will never be able to learn about or to fully appreciate another country. As for me, I'm fortunate enough to be away a month during the summer (without pay for part of the time:o(). That month has been spent once in Reykjavik studying at the Sigurdur Nordal Institute, where we had 5 hours of Icelandic a day followed by lectures on Iceland's geography, history, etc. This summer I just spent my fourth session for a month at the Uppsala International Summer Session, where we studied Swedish language and culture followed by classes in Swedish art, music, etc. (individual choice for the afternoon class). This summer I will go back to Sweden. But next summer may be spent in Prague at a Czech language and culture institute sponsored by Charles University. I'm one of the lucky Americans who can do that. Until the rest of America begins insisting on decent vacation periods (with or without pay), we will remain ignorant and arrogant.

Posted by Johnny | January 22, 2008 12:37 PM

I've found his guide books quite useful, although I supplement them with Lonely Planet and ignore all the art advice other than how to get in cheap and fast.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 22, 2008 12:38 PM

@7: I'm gay, and love traveling to Muslim countries. Experiencing and blending into different cultures, even when they would be completely hostile to you if they really knew you, is one of the great joys of traveling. It isn't difficult or scary, either: male friendships in Muslim countries are very strong, and it's not uncommon to see men holding hands.

I stand fully behind this guy's message, even if he is a bit douchey-elitist in his approach.

Posted by Tdub | January 22, 2008 12:43 PM

I have always liked Rick Steves -- his politics, philosophy on travel, etc. But, I have to admit, his voice sort of annoys me (I find it really hard to pay attention to), so I can only watch his PBS show for about 3 minutes, when I come across it.

Posted by Julie | January 22, 2008 12:45 PM

@11: The very high cost of transatlantic travel is also a barrier to most Americans.

Posted by Greg | January 22, 2008 1:17 PM

Population density of the U.S.: 85 people per square mile.
Population density of the Netherlands: 1265 people per square mile.
I don't need a driving lecture from Mort Goldman.

Posted by Ed the Head | January 22, 2008 1:50 PM

he really doesn't need to worry about too many americans in europe this next year. i can't afford to go to canada.

south america, here i come.

Posted by max solomon | January 22, 2008 1:53 PM

He's my hero...he's the only guest on the local PBS pledge drives that can upstage that boring old ham, George Ray....Rick just comes on and slams into his sales pitch, and George just sits there and glowers and pouts.

Posted by michael strangeways | January 22, 2008 1:54 PM

you said it.

We need 6 weeks minimum like most people in France, Sweden and other countries.

If it resulted in not being ignorant, we likely wouldn't start trillion- dollar idotic wars, too. That would save money in the long run.

Posted by Cleve | January 22, 2008 3:00 PM

Wait, is his company really called "Europe Through the Back Door"?

Posted by Giffy | January 22, 2008 4:02 PM

I spend a lot of time in Europe, mostly on the company tab. I love being there (Deutschland, usually). Being an American has become a massive liability.

1) The authorities give you far more shit than in the past. Payback's a bitch. Just ask any foreign visitor to our Freedom-loving shores.

2) The dollar? Good for wiping your ass.

3) The locals, if they will talk to you, assume you are a xenophobic ignorant moron. (Ever deal with American tourists in Europe? It's usually true.) With extreme effort you can break through this barrier, but it sure isn't automatic.

4) A lot of what I hear from Rick Steves these days is wicked intelligent, and in this era of neo-McCarthyism, somewhat brave, too. But he's done his damage with his books & TV show, because the ignorant morons (see 3) above) are stupid sheep and take everything he says literally. Thus are precious quiet little enclaves turned into check-boxes for Murricans trying to get the most out of their fucking two-week holidays.

Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber | January 22, 2008 4:06 PM

I recently made a trip to Morocco. I didn't encounter anything I thought of as anti-American, although the Moroccans may have recognized me as a Canadian because I spoke to them in French. (I had problems with people looking at me as if I was a walking ATM machine but that's another story...) I think they also realize that 50% of us voted against Bush and that anyone who would travel halfway around the world to an Islamic country is probably one of those 50%. That may explain the anti-American sentiment K. A. encountered @21 above--Europe is more typical a destination for the Ugly American than the other continents.

While the American riffraff is holed up in Disney theme parks or tourist trap enclaves, the intelligent travel for adventure. And if you don't act like an asshole when you are a guest in another country, the less likely you will be regarded as one.

Posted by RainMan | January 22, 2008 7:19 PM

@20 -- You bet it is, and I heard that AFTER I'd formed my "this guy must be gay" theory. Well, I near 'bout fell out when I heard him mention his company name!

Add in the long, languid camera shots on every episode that just "happen" to focus on a totally hot local lad...his "friend, the tour guide"...and that VOICE!

Well, I love RS for many reasons (marijuana reform activism, anyone?), and I reckon he just might love me!

PS -- Can't possibly see myself going on one of his tours -- they cost what I pay for a hotel room in Italy for 2 nights. Auntie Jubilation is a grand ol' thang.

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | January 22, 2008 8:00 PM

Could the people on this thread compliment themselves a little more?
"Most people don't travel like I travel. I'm there to learn, and to question. When I travel, I let the destination speak to me, not the other way around. My vacations are wholistic. We should all have 3 months of vacation a year."

Posted by Ed the Head | January 23, 2008 1:20 PM

@24 What would you suggest that people say then? How authentically European Busch Gardens is?

Posted by Johnny | January 23, 2008 1:32 PM

Ha, that's a good one.
I try not to make an ass of myself when I travel either, but I also don't self-consciously walk around hoping the Euros will like me. And people who sew Canadian flags on backpacks are pansies.

Posted by Ed the Head | January 23, 2008 1:37 PM

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