For those of us who grew up watching public media, the sound of travel documentarian Rick Steves' ever-cheerful "Keep on travelin'!" sign-off conjures up images of the bespectacled Steves putting around ancient, cobblestoned European squares, drinking with locals, and maybe tripping over an errant sheep. Look how easy this is, his show implies. You, too, could be this guy!
Steves, a travel writer who first hit PBS' airwaves in 2000, has built a modest empire on facilitating "independent travel," encouraging his devotees to try assimilating abroad whenever possible. But the latest edition of his book, Travel As A Political Act, which he updated over the course of 2017 and published earlier this month, includes new essays on colonialism, the refugee crisis, Brexit, and the dangers of nativism. Yep — your dad's favorite travel writer is Trojan Horse-ing his way into the conscience of American travelers and challenging what lays at the heart of his own profession.
Travel writing — documenting the voyage past your home's borders — bloomed along with other genres of literature and was bolstered by trade routes, pilgrimages, and migration. But as travel technology boomed in the 20th century, so did a particular kind of mass tourism, one that insisted on a delineation between traveler and "local." Today, there are a number of countries whose economy is deeply reliant on foreign tourism. Those that top the list are often impoverished, with a small population and subsequently, small economy, reports HowMuch.net. It becomes an ephemeral sort of 21st-century colonialism.
To write about travel is to contend with the reality that for many, it's an unattainable luxury. After all, at this point, "travel" and "vacation" are often used interchangeably. "Vacation" is derived from the Latin word "vacare" — "unoccupied." At its core is a sense of indulgence. But travel is also seen, especially by writers like Steves, as a necessity, particularly for white Americans, who unconsciously see their identities as the universal default. In the companion "tip sheet" to his book, Steves puts at the top of the list: "Get out of your comfort zone." Slightly farther down: "Identify — and undermine — your own ethnocentricity."
The ultimate goal of travel shouldn't be enlightenment, argues Steves, or at least, not exclusively - it should be a growing discomfort with your own privilege within the global hierarchy. Travel should usher in discomfort - and it's your responsibility to confront that unease head-on.