If scary headlines inspire some to stay put, they have the opposite effect on travel icon Rick Steves. “We gain understanding when we travel,” he says. “So now, when people say, ‘Have a safe trip,’ I get a bit belligerent. I say, ‘Have a safe stay at home.’” PW caught up with the writer and editor, who has been guiding Americans across Europe since 1976 and now publishes his books with Avalon Travel. (His most recent, Rick Steves Best of Europe, was published January 3.) We spoke with Steves about travel during times of uncertainty.
How is your audience feeling these days?
People are so rattled by terrorism. The fear is worse now because of the commercial news. I talk about this during speaking tours: Back in the old days, when Walter Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is,” that’s the way it was. But you cannot give the news today without wanting to make a profit, which means you need to amp it up, bloody it up, crisis it up. Naive and less sophisticated consumers of news gobble it up and think that the world is more dangerous than it is. They travel and vote and consume with that fear, and, pretty soon, those people are all staying at home.
But I’ve spent four months a year of the last 30 years exploring Europe, and there is no edginess in Europe—no nervousness. We took 40,000 people on our tours last year, and we had a blast. The sad irony is that the edginess is coming from people who think the world is falling apart, and those are the people who will bring danger to our country. I’m all for national security, and the most valuable thing we can do for national security is to travel. The best souvenir is to come home with a better understanding and a broader perspective. Then travel becomes a force for peace.
How does this relate to your longtime TV sign-off: “Keep on travelin’ ”?
I was just in Chicago, giving a talk, and someone said, “Do you think it’s safe to go to Europe?” I said, “You live in Chicago! Of course it’s safe!” A thousand people get killed on [American] streets every month. Meanwhile, 12 million Americans went to Europe last year, and 12 million came home. Get a grip, America! Statistically, the world is safer now for travel than at any point in our lifetimes. If everyone had to travel before they voted, we’d be in a different situation right now. It’s become [perceived as] elite to enjoy visiting a foreign culture, but that’s just the cry of very frightened people.
What are they most worried about?
People are rattled by the refugee problem. It’s a tragic situation for the millions of people who’ve had to leave their homelands. The astute and practical attitude should be, “Let’s find a way, policy- and military-wise, to help promote stability in failed countries.” But there’s no intersection between refugees and your travel dreams. We asked the 800 groups that we took to Europe last year, “Has anyone had a problem with refugees?” The answer was no. The loved ones at home are saying, “How could you possibly be in Greece when all of these desperate people are washing ashore?” From a compassion point of view, it does matter, but from a your-vacation point of view, it’s not an issue.
So what are the trends you’re seeing in European travel?
Whether the reaction of the buying public is legitimate or not, people are buying less Paris. France is not as hot as countries that are considered safer. What’s remarkable to me is how popular Ireland and Scotland are. Still, I’m not a journalist, looking for a timely hook. Europe is my beat; I want to cover it from top to bottom. Hot destinations don’t really matter. If I said that Portugal is the best value, but you wanted to see your relatives in Norway, then Norway is where your value is.
What will be your focus in the coming year?
My job is to travel, make mistakes, and take careful notes so that people can learn from my experience and enjoy their trips. Americans have such little vacation [time], we need to know how to use every minute smartly—and that gets back to the nitty-gritty value of guidebooks. People often ask about budget trips; it occurs to me that budget travel might be about getting more out of a destination, rather than spending less there. You can bump up the value of an experience by being prepared and looking at the context. So we need to provide different ways for people to consume information. It’s a huge responsibility to put your name on a guidebook, and I’m determined to keep my focus. For example, Iceland is a popular destination—my staff would love for me to do a book on Iceland. But I don’t have a passion for it, which means that I won’t do such a good job. But I always spend time in Italy [a new pocket guide on Italy’s Cinque Terre is out in June) and I am really, really excited about [updates to] our Belgium book [out in May]; I want to make it up-to-date and cutting-edge and worth its position. And that’s how I see my market: I don’t need to encourage people who already see the world as their playground. For me, Europe is the wading pool for world exploration.