Guidebook author and TV travel host Rick Steves embraces and encourages "thoughtful travel," the idea that how you spend your tourism dollars makes a big difference for countries in crisis. That's why this spring he's traveling to Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories, among other places.
How do we become more thoughtful travelers? I asked him, and you can too, in person, Feb. 23 and 24 at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Here's what Steves shared with me via email about how to get started on the more mindful path.
"When a country or region is in turmoil, people will ask me, 'Are there deals to be had for travelers there?' Not that I'm any kind of saint, but when I travel to places in crisis, it's not to take advantage of their hardship, but to learn from their reality and to contribute to their economy through tourism.
"When I do travel to a place that’s going through hard times, I know I'll be spending some substantial money there. I try to do it in a way where the money will stay in that country. For example, visiting Greece from a cruise ship is nice, but your serious money (accommodations, dinner, and tour guiding) stays with the ship.
"I remember, immediately after the fall of the USSR, the Baltic States had lots of 'joint venture' businesses, like fancy hotels that were mostly owned by Germans and Swedes. These slick bits of Stockholm were being planted in Vilnius in hopes of big profits down the road for foreign investors. I always felt better staying in a humbler hotel with local roots.
"I'll be navigating the complex waters of Israel/Palestine this April, and I asked an Israeli tourist board official if he cared that I'd be featuring the West Bank in my work. He basically said, 'We’re happy if you can send Israel and the people in the Palestinian Territories some tourism. It's really important for our economies, and if it is good for the West Bank's economic health, then it’s good for Israel, too.' By promoting tourism in the West Bank, I hope to play some small role in helping the struggling local economy and promoting peace at the same time.
"Where would I travel in Europe this year with that ethic in mind? I’d just be careful not to let hysterical 'if it bleeds it leads' news coverage (as news reporting has to be these days to remain economically viable) skew my assessment of where it's safe to travel. I would also not let the possibility of strikes or demonstrations keep me away from a country that’s going through hard times.
"Travelers can be like skiers. Some like the smooth, predictable slopes. Others find that a little boring and enjoy a few moguls here and a trail through the forest there. The key to enjoying moguls is to bend your knees. And, if you’re venturing into the forest, you better have the necessary information.
"The key to enjoying Europe, from Portugal to Rhodes, is to be flexible and to have the right info. I don’t think prices will be down. But the relief-per-dollar brought there by my business will be way up. I'll be letting these ideas help shape my travels this spring.
"And that’s why, on my next trip, I’ll be visiting these countries: Egypt, Israel, Palestinian territories, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Happy — and thoughtful — travels!"