If you’ve flipped on PBS at some point in the past several years, you likely know the face of Rick Steves. On his long-running program, Rick Steves’ Europe, 10 seasons long and counting, Steves, who calls himself a “wonky, dorky travel guy,” ambles through Europe’s big cities, secluded towns and natural wonders with an affable grin and a backpack slung over his shoulder. As he wanders, he dispenses travel tips, dishes on history, chats with locals and always encourages viewers to “keep on travelin’.”
But for Steves, travel isn’t just about having a good time. In books and TV specials that detail trips to places like Iran, Israel and Palestine, Cuba, Guatemala, Ethiopia and beyond, he makes the case for “travel as a political act”—a topic he’ll discuss in Sarasota on Tuesday, Feb. 11, as part of the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series. Visit rclassociation.org for details.
When you call travel a “political act,” what do you mean?
Sometimes you learn more about your country by leaving it than by staying in it. When you travel, the most valuable souvenir you bring home is a broader perspective.
Why are many Americans afraid to travel?
It’s embarrassing how fearful our country is, because it’s safer than ever to travel right now. We have entertainment masquerading as news and they make money by amping it up. It’s sexy. It’s bloody. I like to be entertained by news, but it doesn’t make me a fearful person. When someone says, “Have a safe trip,” I always joke, “Have a safe stay at home.” My goal in life is not to stay safe. It’s to embrace the world, and if all of us had the goal of embracing the world, this would be a better place.
You recently committed to donate $1 million each year to fight climate change. Why?
As a businessman, I have to walk the walk. We don’t need to stop living because of climate change. We just need to be responsible and bear the cost of what we create. I wish our government would tax us and force us to account for our negative impact on the environment, but it doesn’t. My Climate Smart Commitment is a self-imposed carbon tax.
How is climate change affecting the places you visit?
Germany has never needed air-conditioning, and now they’re scrambling to take care of travelers in the summer when it’s hot and humid. You go to the Netherlands, and they’re spending billions of euros beefing up their dikes and building storm surge barriers. You go to a charming town in England and you see that when they get high waters, it inundates the towns. These are little annoyances in the rich world. Farther south, it’s a matter of life and death.
Is it strange how you’ve become such a recognizable part of pop culture?
It’s amusing and befuddling for me to meet people who grew up watching my show. It’s fun to be a question in The New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s fun to show up in folk lyrics on the Italian Riviera. That’s a hoot. But I just do my work. I would do this even if I was just making a tiny amount of money. I love Europe. I love teaching. I love art. I’m so lucky I found my niche.