Rick Steves Wants Americans to “Get to Know the Other 96% of Humanity”
November 30, 2023
Many of Rick Steves’ shows and specials are available to stream via the PBS app or at wttw.com.
Rick Steves could retire. The beloved travel guru has hosted shows on public television for over 30 years, led his first tour to Europe over 40 years ago, and started teaching people how to travel affordably even before that.
“I have a lot of friends my age that are retired. A lot of friends from public television I’ve worked with for 30 years have retired,” he said on a recent stopover in Chicago. “But for me this is quite a mission. It’s fun. I don’t know what else I would do. I mean, I like to play pétanque, but I would rather produce great TV shows and contribute them to public television, and connect with all the people that recognize the value of public television and enjoy traveling and enjoy my shows.
“I’m kind of a lucky guy who’s found my niche, and it just energizes me to be on the road.”
He had recently returned from a country-hopping trip to Morocco, Istanbul, all the Nordic capitals, Spain, France, Iceland, and Poland, filming for his TV show in the latter two. He was in the midst of a nine-day tour of eight cities, hosting events with PBS member stations. He’ll be back in Chicago in January for the Travel and Adventure Show, and returns virtually in February for a French Wine Tasting with WTTW (register here by January 12). After that, he’ll be off to Europe again in no time – not that he’s planned where he’s going yet. He does have a trip scheduled to meet and train 25 of the 150 or so guides who lead 30,000 people on 1,200 tours of Europe under his aegis every year.
“My guides are great,” he said. “I don’t lead the tours any more, I take them, because I just love to be following these guides around the places they know and love.”
Taking a tour around a vibrant European city might sound like a vacation, but for Steves it’s actually work – not that he minds. He’s in Europe one hundred days a year. He feels an obligation to all those excited travelers who are relying on him to lead them through a foreign country via a tour, his TV show, or a guidebook.
“If I go anywhere in Europe, I’m thinking about my book,” he said. “If 10,000 people are going to use my guidebook to Portugal next year and I have an evening free in Lisbon, I’d better be out there looking at restaurants and figuring out what’s going on, because people are counting on that book.” His voice turned mischievous. “It’d be selfish for me to ignore the needs of my guidebooks and just have a nice time!” He cackled.
His one concession towards easing his apparently indomitable work ethic in the past few years has been to actually take a vacation, where he’s not thinking about his guidebooks. That’s what the stop in Morocco was, as well as a gourmet barge tour in Burgundy and some extended hikes in the Alps.
“Those are things where I don’t get sidetracked on my work,” he explained. “If I went to Paris, I would love it just as much as going on vacation, because I like my work,” but it wouldn’t be vacation – it would be work. Similarly, when he’s traveling between cities in the United States, he is the opposite of a sightseer – he’s so focused on his engagements and so busy shuttling between talks and events that he barely sees the cities he visits.
Although his work is nominally about leisure, Steves brings to it a fervor that travel can change lives and make the world a better place. When not on the road, he still lives in Edmonds, Washington, where he grew up and where his business is based, but his “mission is to teach Americans how to enjoy Europe and at the same time bring home a European sensibility, which I just think is more important than ever now,” he said. “Europe is more inclined to live with its neighbors in a family of nations kind of way, whereas the United States is a little more ethnocentric and ‘our way or the highway,’ and I just love recognizing that we’re four percent of the planet, and it’s good to get to know the other 96% of humanity.”
Europe, he frequently says, “is the wading pool for world exploration.”
“For me, Americans need to get out and see the world. If everybody had to travel before they voted, we would have a different political landscape and we’d be a safer country.” He continued, “I’m sort of into culture shock. I think it’s a constructive thing. It’s the growing pains of a broadening perspective, and I just like to help curate it.”
One of the things Steves himself has picked up from Europe is a love of lively urban cores that lack cars in favor of bikes and pedestrians. He advocates on behalf of this and other causes via op-eds, talks, and philanthropy. Noting that international travel causes emissions that contribute to climate change, his company recommends that travelers donate to a slate of environmental initiatives on behalf of the developing world. He is devoted to the reduction of poverty and its attendant issues of housing insecurity and hunger (he wants to help “our government have policies that are more compassionate when it comes to hungry people”); he supports the legalization of recreational marijuana; and he is a benefactor of the arts – he donated $1 million over ten years to his local orchestra, and will join them for a “musical tour” of Europe in December.
And then of course there is his support of public television, the reason he was in Chicago in the first place.
“Media shapes people’s outlooks. It makes you enthusiastic about the world, or afraid of the world, depending on what channel you watch,” he said.
He put on his TV host voice. “As I say time and time again in the [public television membership] pledge breaks: I’m thankful that there’s this one little thoughtful oasis on the dial where we can make programs that respect your intellect, that assume an attention span, and are driven not by a passion for keeping advertisers happy, but simply by a passion for equipping and inspiring our viewers to reach out and embrace the world in all its beauty and diversity. That’s a good line, and I love it.”
Off he went to say it in front of an audience on TV – as he would in many more cities, over many more days of traveling, before setting off once again to visit Europe and “embrace the world” himself.