Rick Steves: Embrace the ‘culture shock’ of world travel
April 10, 2023

Rick Steves: Embrace the ‘culture shock’ of world travel

‘Culture shock’ is a phrase that often takes on a negative connotation, but Rick Steves, the European guidebook guru, wants us to embrace that feeling.

I spoke with the public television travel host ahead of his recent talk at Villanova University, an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

Ian Bush: I started by asking Steves about his travel philosophy.

Rick: It’s travel in a way that lets you take home what I think is the most beautiful souvenir: a broader perspective. A lot of people talk about transformational travel. You can actually have a transformational experience as well on vacation: You can travel as a tourist or a traveler or a pilgrim or a little bit of everything.

I really love the thought that when you leave home, you can learn more about it by looking at it from a distance. My teaching has kind of morphed from practical budget travel skills, to appreciating the art and the culture and the cuisine, to looking at culture shock as not something to avoid but as a constructive thing  curating that culture shock, shaping it and enjoying it. And that makes your travel so rewarding.

Is there one tip you could give people to embrace the culture shock — one thing they should do on their next trip?

Rick: I like to be a cultural chameleon. When I’m traveling my beat in Europe, it’s sort of a wading pool for world exploration. My mission with my 100 workmates in Seattle is to inspire and equip Americans to venture beyond Orlando. And, you know, Europe is nothing exotic. But for a lot of people, that’s challenge enough. So check that out  it’s not gonna bite you. And then you might realize the world’s a wonderful place.

That’s what I think is my great takeaway. I’ve spent 200 days a year ever since I was a kid traveling around the world. And I just love this notion that the world is a beautiful place. It’s filled with love. It’s filled with wonderful people. It’s got its challenges. But more important than ever is for us to have a mindset where we are inclined to build bridges and less inclined to build walls — because that’s how we make our world a safer and better place.

Has COVID done anything to change your travel philosophy? Has it changed the way you approach the world itself, to travel in the world?

Rick: Travel is more important than ever now. I think the challenges that confront us in a post-COVID world are going to be more COVID-type challenges. And I think they will require good governance, well-educated electorates, and nations working together. The challenges that will be confronting us in the future will be blind to conventional weaponry and walls. And I think what we need to do is realize you can no longer win and lose  it’s got to be win-win. If we win north of the border, and they lose south of the border, it’ll just blow across again, and we’ll be in trouble.

So we’re all in this together: that’s something we can come out of COVID knowing. And through travel, we get to know our neighbors. I think there’s a reason to travel. It’s totally enjoyable. It’s totally fun. It’s also really an investment in a stable world.

People are rightly concerned about climate change and the impact of international travel on it. At the same time, it would be a real shame not to be able to experience the world that we're trying to save. How do you square the two?

Rick: I just gave a lecture at the big consumer travel show in Los Angeles about the ethics of traveling in a warming world. Of course, that’s the elephant in the room in the tourism industry. We’re a huge industry  the No. 1 source of foreign revenue and the No. 1 employer in many countries. And we are a major contributor to climate change. If we want our grandchildren to travel like we’re traveling, we’ve got to get serious about this.

Having said that, I don’t want to flight-shame myself out of travel. I think travel is really a good investment in a sustainable future. But we need to maximize the positives of travel; in other words, travel in a way where we get out of our comfort zone, broaden our perspective, and minimize the negatives. That means: how much carbon are we putting into the atmosphere? Basically, it boils down, in my mind, to mitigation.

At Rick Steves’ Europe, we take 30,000 Americans to Europe every year, and we pay for their carbon. I wish our government taxed us, but we tax ourselves $30  a self-imposed tax for every person we take on our European trips, because science knows that if you invest $30 smartly in carbon mitigation, you negate the carbon created by flying from here to Europe and back.

The conventional way for a company in the developed world to mitigate their carbon is to pay for carbon offsets. I would rather invest in struggling farmers south of the border, knowing that half of humanity is smallholder farmers trying to survive on $5 a day. And they contribute in a big way to climate change just by their desperation to farm the land and feed their kids. With a little help, they can do their work more productively, and contribute less to climate change.

So we’ve got 10 organizations that we give $100,000 to every year, and they do great stuff. And then people who take a Rick Steves tour take that tour knowing that their flight’s carbon, at least, is zeroed out. That’s nothing to brag about; it’s nothing heroic. It’s the baseline ethical way to be a tour company. And on my website it says if you’re a tour programmer or tour producer, steal this program and don’t credit us! It’s just time for people to get serious about climate change, and also get serious about the value of travel as we learn to live together. It’s an honest cost of what we’re selling  the carbon, and we should pay for it. I think it makes sense.

A lot of people have used your guidebooks to travel across Europe. What one destination or a 'kind' of destination you would recommend to somebody who's done the Cinque Terre, the Paris, the Rome?

Rick: The big problem in 2023 is overcrowding. That was the big discussion in 2019 before COVID hit. Americans tend to go where everybody else is going. It’s a kind of herd mentality, which I don’t think benefits any traveler. So, be thinking about that.

Think about second cities. We all go to Edinburgh. What about Glasgow? We all go to Lisbon. What about Porto? We all go to Berlin or Munich. What about Hamburg? We all go to Paris. What about Lyon or Marseille? We all go to Dublin. What about Belfast? We all go to Seattle. What about Tacoma?

Second cities tend to be industrial, kind of rust belt cities that are leaping into the fore now with creative, feisty entrepreneurial ventures and fun, edgy street art  and lots of hard-working small businesses. And not that you don’t want to go to Edinburgh, but if you have four days in Edinburgh, that fourth day might be better spent a half-hour away on the train in Glasgow. Those are places where you get the cutting edge  what’s happening today. And I think it’s just a reminder that there are a lot of places in Europe that are overwhelmed with tourists  Barçelona, Amsterdam, Salzburg, Rome, Bruges  and they’re great, but there are a lot of places also that have almost no tourists. And they’re really worth looking at as well.

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