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What’s the Deal with Rick Steves? A Look at the Popular European Travel Writer

Rick Steves is the loved/hated European travel guru who describes himself as “America’s leading authority on European travel.” He began publishing European travel books in the 1980s. He has hosted a European travel show on PBS since 2000 and claims he continues to travel Europe for research for four months each year. Both his books and the show, “Rick Steves’ Europe,” have covered everything between the Azores and Western Russia. His books contain simple language with handwritten diagrams and a dull narrative. So “why do so may dislike Rick Steves?

This author has been decreasingly using Rick Steves’ books for two decades. His philosophy of “Europe through the back door” is appealing. It promises a method of experiencing Europe through less-traveled means, closer connections with the locals, and intriguing experiences without long lines. At the same time, he advises readers on how to subvert Europeans’ expectations of an “ugly American,” as he puts it. Yet, I frequently groan while reading his books.

Now that Trip Adviser has democratized the travel experience by opening forums to address an unlimited number of travel subjects, a forum addressing dislike of Steves has grown to contain 68 contributions. More superficially, commenters have complained about the “wimpy” effect he strikes in his television program. Less superficially, commenters complain about his “cocky” and “smug” attitude as he waxes authoritative about European history.

Other complaints address his approach to making a profit. A commenter found it uncouth that he uses public television to “promote his own business interests.” Another complains that the restaurant and hotel “deals” he “negotiates” for his readers amount to less of a discount and more of a kickback to Steves. But the plurality of the complaints centered around the destruction he has wreaked on “once-quaint parts of Europe,” which are now “overrun with American tourists.”

People cite the drastic changes to the Cinque Terra as a verifiable example. The Cinque Terra is a pedestrian-only series of five villages cascading down the Italian Riviera into the Mediterranean sea. They can only be reached by foot or by train, and their geographical confines limit the number of tourists they can tolerate. Now they host teeming crowds of Americans carrying Rick Steves books, creating extraordinarily long lines to get into ordinary restaurants. Italy now requires a pass to visit the Cinque Terra as though it was a national park.

One of the most disagreeable parts of Rick Steve’s books and programs is his editorial, and often untruthful, approaches to European history and politics. Two of the four Rick Steves biographies on his website state he was a European History major, which emboldens him to make controversial statements as though they were far-less nuanced and more absolute than they are. His favorite targets are the Catholic Church and any right-of-center political currently in power. A self-described devout Lutheran, he frequently claims in his books and television show that the Catholic Church taught “the world was flat,” which is a canard spread during the Enlightenment. I corresponded with one of his assistants about that error, so I know he knows better. Even more “smug,” Steves calls any political body questioning the wisdom of mass immigration “racist,” which he supports with the analytical depth of a middle-school essay.

We used two Rick Steves’ book during a recent trip to France and Austria. They are still better than nothing, but unfortunately, Steves’ books contain less of the Europe-through-the-back-door mentality that they once did. Perhaps that philosophy is the victim of its success. Once-obscure destinations are now tourist hotspots, and it is unlikely Steves is uncovering many more unbeaten paths with his entourage of camera operators and 30,000 annual tourists his tourism company hosts. Steves’ back door might have been a back door at one time, but it can hardly be one in principal when it sees so many tourists cross its threshold.

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Written by Robert Laurence

Prolific Big Foot Hunter, Magic Maker, and Vanilla Malt Maker.

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