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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reading the Northwest: Why Rick Steves sees travel as a political act

Travel writer and TV host Rick Steves will be in Spokane on Nov. 29 for an evening with the Northwest Passages Book Club. (Courtesy)
By Martin Wolk For The Spokesman-Review

There is something oddly comforting about turning on a Rick Steves television special on PBS and settling in for an armchair tour of Tuscany’s wine country, southeast England or the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. Steves has been guiding Americans through Europe for so many years, it’s like an old friend leading us along the ancient cobbled streets as he ushers us into a tiny store to share a glass of the region’s special wine.

But Steves wants to push us out of our comfort zone. His book, “Travel as a Political Act,” recently revised and published in a third edition, urges Americans to go beyond tourist attractions and dig deeper in their travels, to engage with the people we meet and understand what makes us different – and how we are the same.

“The fact is there’s nothing like actually getting on an airplane and flying somewhere and hanging out with people who see things differently than you do,” Steves said in an interview. “It really knocks your ethnocentrism for a loop.”

Steves brings his message to Spokane’s Bing Crosby Theater on Nov. 29 when he joins The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club for an evening of conversation co-sponsored by KSPS.

For more than 40 years, Steves has been leading travelers through Europe, publishing dozens of guidebooks and producing more than 100 public television shows, all with the aim of getting more Americans to travel abroad.

Too many Americans, he said, default to Disney theme parks or Las Vegas for vacation, time after time. “That’s just escapism,” he said. “We need to grapple with reality on this planet. Not everybody has an appetite for reality, but if you’re curious about the real world, you’ve got to get out there and see it.”

It’s no exaggeration to say Steves has changed the way Americans travel since he published his first book, “Europe Through the Back Door,” in 1980. His approach of getting off the beaten path to enjoy authentic experiences and interact with locals has helped create an alternative to the all-inclusive resorts, glitzy destinations and cruise ships that gobble up so much of the travel economy. His company’s guides led 30,000 Americans on tours in the past year alone, and Steves has reached millions more with his books, newspaper articles, television shows, audio tours and podcasts.

Steves got his start the way many young people did in the 1970s, as a self-described “hippie backpacker” who became enamored of travel while making his way around Europe. For Steves, the journey never ended, and he now presides over a thriving enterprise with more than 100 full-time employees based in his suburban hometown of Edmonds, Washington.

While Steves has always specialized in Europe – what he calls “the wading pool for world exploration” – he has traveled widely beyond the continent, and his book includes stories of politically charged travel to destinations as varied as El Salvador, Iran and Israel. By the time he arrives in Spokane he will have a new stamp in his heavily used passport – this one from Ethiopia, the setting for a planned future television show.

Steves comes across as mild mannered in his role of travel show host, but he gets fired up when he hears people fret about the potential dangers of traveling abroad.

“It’s just amazing to me how many people think it’s scary to travel abroad,” said Steves. “It’s never been safer to travel abroad. When somebody tells me have a safe trip, I say you have a safe stay at home because where I’m going is safer than where you’re staying. I miss the days when people said bon voyage.”

And Steves heats up talking about what he sees as the erosion of democratic values in many Western countries, including the United States. A new special, “Rick Steves’ The Story of Fascism in Europe,” takes viewers on a trip across the continent to understand the forces that resulted in world war and genocide less than a century ago.

“Europe paid a steep price when their democracies got derailed back in the 1930s with fascism, and there’s a message that democracies are fragile,” he said. “We could lose our democracy if we’re not engaged. We should pay attention to what history’s trying to teach us.”

Steves is a passionate advocate for reforming marijuana laws, and he recently returned from a U.S. book speaking tour, where he shared his experiences in Europe and at home. “When I started getting into drug policy reform, Europe was ahead of the United States,” he said. “Now the United States is ahead of Europe. We’ve actually figured it out. Washington and Colorado were the first to do that in 2012. Now, six years later, we know it was a good idea.”

Travel has changed a lot since Steves first visited Europe with his parents as a teen. The explosion of travel services on the Internet, including Airbnb and crowdsourcing guides like TripAdvisor have made it easier than ever for travelers to be their own booking agents and guides. But the movement has had unintended consequences, like turning whole sections of European capitals into tourist zones with little of the local charm that Steves cherishes.

“You can still have a wonderful experience in those cities, but it’s not a back-door experience,” he said.

At 63, Steves said he is working “harder than ever” and loving it. “It’s just a fun gig I’ve got. It’s fun for me to be the globetrotting guinea pig and come home and share with people the lessons from my experience. Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world, so we’ve got to use our time smartly. It’s a limited resource. “

Comedy of manners, updated

Portland-based author Patrick DeWitt is having a moment. His 2011 novel “The Sisters Brothers,” short-listed for the Man Booker prize, recently hit the silver screen as a darkly comic Western starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix. His new novel “French Exit” is winning strong reviews and currently sits on the Pacific Northwest Independent Bestseller list. The book has been described as a “mother-son caper,” in which a wealthy New York widow decamps for Paris to spend down the remainder of her once-sizable inheritance.

Martin Wolk has been a correspondent for Reuters and, among other publications. He writes The Spokesman-Review’s monthly “Reading the Northwest column.”