Rick Steves

Popular guidebook author and travel TV host Rick Steves told a Sarasota audience on Tuesday that he has one main goal in his work. "My mission," he said, "is to inspire and equip Americans to venture beyond Orlando."

After falling in love with Europe while visiting with his parents as a teenager, Steves began teaching classes on how to travel in the 1970s and later started a business leading trips to the continent. His company, Rick Steves' Europe, now employs more than 100 people and takes 30,000 people on guided tours of Europe each year. Steves' guidebooks, meanwhile, rank among the world's most popular travel books, and he has filmed 11 seasons of his popular TV show, Rick Steves' Europe, for PBS. (Season 11 will debut this fall.)

Steves discussed his career in detail on Tuesday, at the second event in the 2020 Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series, but he also went deeper. He discussed how traveling the world can help an American overcome what he calls our "ethnocentrism," and extolled the virtues of placing yourself in situations in which you are the "oddball." 

"We're 4 percent of this planet," he said about America, "and we're a beautiful 4 percent, but there's another 96 percent that's just as beautiful in God's eyes."

Seeing other parts of the world also helps you see your own country better, he emphasized. In addition to discussing broad cultural differences between America and other nations, he examined how countries deal with issues like prostitution and drug use in very different ways, with very different outcomes. Steves has long been an outspoken proponent for decriminalizing marijuana possession, and helped lead the effort to pass a ballot measure in his home state of Washington that legalized recreational marijuana use.

On Tuesday, Steves also discussed how he is wrestling with his company's impact on the climate. According to Steves, a round-trip plane ticket from America to Europe adds roughly as much carbon to the atmosphere as driving a car for six months does. He said he feels that, as someone who take tens of thousands of people to Europe each year, he has a responsibility to counteract that environmental damage.

"I made too much money last year. Because the way our government taxes us, we don't have to pay for our carbon," he said. To make up for that, Steves has implemented a "self-imposed carbon tax of $1 million" that is distributed to different organizations who do "climate-smart agriculture" in the developing world. "I'm not a hero. It's nothing great," he said. "It's just neutral."

Fear was another theme in Steves' talk—in particular, Americans' fear of traveling abroad, which he believes is amplified by commercial media outlets that emphasize "how scary it is overseas." When a person does get the chance to travel outside his or her country, Steves said, that fear vanishes quickly. "Fear," he said, "is for people who don't get out very much."

The Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series continues with former State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. next Monday, Feb. 17, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are still available for Sherman's talk.

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