Travel is not a political act

At a time of so much doom and eco-gloom about foreign travel, Rick Steves puts an impassioned case for exploring the world. But his belief that travel is a political act means he ends up debasing both tourism and politics.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Rick Steves must have one of the best jobs in the world. For 35 years he has been ‘showing Americans how to travel on a budget’, running a tour company and writing travel guides, as well as hosting a string of radio shows and the unfortunately named Europe Through the Back Door TV series.

His job has taken him across the world – from the fjords of Norway to the shantytowns of El Salvador and the villages of Anatolyan Turkey. The Seattle-born Steves is somewhat of an American institution; his shows have been broadcast on hundreds of radio and TV stations nationwide.

Now, Steves has published the book ‘he always wanted to write’: Travel as a Political Act. In it, he shares his thoughts on how to make travel more meaningful for you and the people whose countries you visit, as well as impressions from some of his favourite destinations.

In a time when many are down on travel and world exploration – today, tourism is widely interpreted as a codeword for ecological destruction and cross-cultural encounters are seen as corrupting ‘indigenous’ cultures – it is refreshing to read a book about why we should all travel more. Steves thinks Americans can benefit from moving beyond their own cultural comfort zones and believes that those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel can inspire those without the means to do so with stories and insights gained from their journeys.

While his book at times reads like a recipe for cheesecake on cheese toast and his appeals to decent, American Christian values will sometimes make you cringe, Steves comes across as positively progressive and humanist compared with today’s gloomy save-the-world-stay-at-home advocates.

‘We travel to have enlightening experiences’, he writes, ‘to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow’. He talks of the need to humanise people who might seem strange or dangerous to us. Steves argues that instead of caving in to fears of faraway places and perceived threats we should be less risk-averse and instead remember Franklin D Roosevelt’s assertion that ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. While he celebrates the ‘American Dream’, Steves also recognises that ‘one of the ugliest things one nation can do is write another nation’s textbooks’ and he feels that people around the world have the right to aspire to raising their living standards.

Yet for all his liberal non-judgementalism, even the ever-smiling, chino-wearing, blond-tufted Steves has his prejudices. He does not like Fat Americans (though he wouldn’t dare use that phrase). I’m not suggesting that Steves is overweightophobic, but he regularly makes not-so-subtle references to flabby, scoffing American tourists to conjure up an image for his readers of a less worthy type of traveller who, in fact, is not a traveller at all, but a tourist or holidaymaker.

‘If I’m evangelical about the value of travel’, he writes, ‘it’s the thoughtful and challenging kind of travel – less caloric perhaps… but certainly much more broadening’. Elsewhere, he writes that ‘for many Americans, travelling still means seeing if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port’. However, ‘if you make your travels a political act, your vacation can be the most intensely educational time of your life. Rather than coming home fatter, you can come home smarter…’

Heaven forbid people should travel simply to have fun, relax, lie in the sun until they’re as crisp as roasted shrimps or to eat to their arteries’ discontent.

According to Steves, ‘we can’t understand the world without experiencing it’. Of course nothing can replace first-hand experiences. For me, not even the most stunning photographs of natural or man-made wonders like the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal could match the feeling of being there and seeing them for myself. I hadn’t grasped what Third World rural poverty really looked like until I came across it in Ethiopian villages, and I didn’t know what it felt like to float on water until I visited the Dead Sea in Israel.

Still, there are three main reasons why I take issue with Steves’ idea that you need to ‘go there’ in order really to understand a place or a people and that travelling should be approached as a political act.

First, going somewhere doesn’t necessarily guarantee you deeper insights into a people’s plight. You can often learn more about a people or a part of the world by engaging with their history through literature, political theory or meaningful debate and conversation. You don’t need to hug a leper in order to grasp the perversity of the fact that some people in the developing world still suffer from diseases eradicated in the West 200 years ago. And you don’t need to spend time with the Zapatistas in order to understand the motivations of separatist movements.

The search for ‘authentic experiences’ through travel can, in fact, lead to partial, even blinkered, views of a society. How else could you explain that the globetrotting Steves views Europe as a socialist continent?

Second, travellers often speak of ‘finding their true selves’ or being in search of ‘self-fulfilment’; to muddle up such goals with political activism would be to turn politics into a narcissistic project. Not only, then, are we left with a debased view of politics, but travel – which for most people is simply a form of recreation – becomes imbued with all sorts of duties, and anyone who fails to take those duties seriously is made to feel guilty about their ‘selfishness’.

Third, if travel is the highest source of political awareness and solidarity, then that means only those with enough money and time on their hands to see the world can be fully enlightened. The travelling political vanguard, as envisioned by Steves, will inevitably be relatively rich people.

The view of travel as a political act fits in neatly with today’s fashion for ethical consumption: the idea that what you buy and eat or where you spend your holidays shapes not only yourself, but the world. The notion that our shopping choices or travel itineraries are the most potent force for political activism is, in reality, a source of estrangement and inequality rather than unification or solidarity. After all, the poor don’t have ‘consumer power’.

Fair enough, we would all do well to be more conscious of how our actions and interactions affect others, but, ultimately, travelling is something we do for our own benefit and enjoyment – and there’s no reason we should feel either worthy or guilty about it.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves is published by Nation Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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