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Travel and Global Citizenship

January 19, 2022

Rick Steves is a popular public television host and writer whose travel shows and guidebooks have helped and inspired many travelers. In his January Seriespresentation on Jan. 14, he focused on the value of travel for learning, connecting, and becoming better global citizens.

Presenting virtually from his home near Seattle, Wash., the travel expert encouraged his audience to travel, and to live with a traveler’s mindset of curiosity and openness to try new things. He noted, “I’m really happy to be able to share some thoughts on why travel makes us better citizens. That’s kind of the foundation of my whole passion for teaching . . . that we get out and get to know the world and become more friendly with it.”

Steves talks about his work primarily as teaching, and over the past 40 years he has used a lot of different means to help people learn about travel: he hosts a show on American public television, publishes and regularly updates guidebooks about many different countries and regions, and runs a tour company that normally brings over 30,000 tourists to Europe each year.

He explained that he has focused on Europe because he sees it as a springboard for world exploration. For his target audience, mainly Americans, Europe is an attractive destination and can serve as a “wading pool,” he said, helping people get their feet wet in preparation for diving into the bigger pool of travel worldwide.

In his guidebooks and travel show, Steves offers practical travel tips such as packing light, using trains and other public transit, finding accommodations, and checking out local markets. He suggests that “budget” travel is actually the best way to travel because it helps travelers to meet local people and experience things they might miss on a tour of main attractions.

Steves suggested that travel makes us better citizens because when we travel, we come together. He spoke about divisions in the world from country to country, between rich and poor, powerful and voiceless.

“And there are these walls,” he added. “Every time I see a wall in my travels, it’s important to remember that there are two sides to the wall, and when we go there, we need to get to both sides.”

He described a trip to Israel and Palestine. He was there on April 14, he said, a day of great celebration in Israel, marking an important starting point in the history of their country. But on the other side of the wall, in Palestine, he noted, there was mourning, and the day is considered a day of defeat, a memorial to catastrophe.

Steves explained further that, in the next generation, children can “pick up their parents’ baggage” – and he asked, “Who is the enemy in their parents’ minds?” An unintended consequence of walls, he said, is that they keep younger generations from talking with each other, and then generational disputes become extended. Alternatively, he added, “When we travel, we can connect, talk, learn, and become better citizens.”

Reflecting on the United States’ position as a powerful and wealthy country, Steves suggested that Americans are stakeholders in the world’s complex problems. He continued, “I think especially that as Christians and people of faith, we have a moral obligation to own how our country is impacting the world, both good and bad. . . . That’s one dimension of good citizenship; it’s honest citizenship.”

As a Christian in the Lutheran tradition, Steves said that travel has affirmed his faith in a variety of ways. He has seen God, he said, in the beauty of creation, the diversity of people that he meets, and the love of parents for their children in every culture and context. He noted, “When you travel, you realize there’s no division in our humanity. . . . We’re all children of God.”

Steves encouraged travelers to speak with local citizens and to explore the places where they go to eat and drink and shop. He laughed as he recalled a conversation he once had in western Ireland. He had asked a man sitting on a bench near the coast if the man had been born there. The man pointed down the road and responded, “No, I was born about five miles that way.” When Steves asked him if he’d lived in the area for his whole life, the man thought for a moment and then replied, “Not yet.”

Steves also described meeting a monk and being invited into a local abbey for homemade limoncello. And in Belgium, he said, he was able to visit a fine chocolate shop that has been run by the same family for generations. Stories like these, Steves suggested, happen when you’re willing to flex with the cultures, eating and drinking where the locals do. “Feel, think, get in the mindset of the locals,” he said. “Then you’re connecting better, going home with that connection – and for the rest of your life, you’re a better global citizen.”

Steves further encouraged travel as a “political act.” While he does not encourage or engage in risky travel, he said, he has traveled to places such as Iran, Cuba, Palestine, and other countries with whom the United States has strained relationships. Steves urged his audience to recognize that while our governments may have different views, we as people need not be enemies – and travel can help with that.

He explained, “When I go there, they learn about me. I’m an American, and it makes it tougher for their government to demonize us with their propaganda. And when I come home, it makes it tougher for our government to demonize them with our propaganda. It’s a beautiful thing. What’s not to like about that? If we all traveled more, the world would be a more tightly knit community, and we could work out our problems a little better.”

Travel, said Steves, can also open our eyes to some of the troubles and struggles experienced in other places – and to ways we might be able to help. He pointed out that even if our motivation to help is only to protect our own interests, we should recognize that stability and security all over the world would make a better world for everyone.

In situations where travel is restricted, or if people can’t travel because of physical or financial barriers, Steves suggested living with a traveler’s mindset. He described a woman and her family who set a goal of “cooking their way” through 50 cultures in a year, exploring the tastes of a different cuisine each week – all from their own kitchen.

He concluded, “What is a good traveler? A good traveler is curious, wants to get out of their comfort zone and try new things, wants to explore different ways to be passionate, wants to be connected with their neighbors. I can do that right here in my little town – and I have done that – and it’s shown me there are more dimensions to life than I thought there were.”