From 9/11/01 to 9/11/11

As a gesture of post-9/11 solidarity, we were proudly shown these stars and stripes while filming at Burgundy’s Château de Rochepot — a keepsake from France’s liberation in 1944

Dear Traveler,

As our nation remembers the horrible events of 9/11 on its 10th anniversary, along with commemorating the victims and how so many people suffered on that tragic day, many of us are sorting through our thoughts with the perspective that comes with a little time. Growing from personal tragedy by thoughtful reflection can be a way to honor those who died or suffered.

I was in Italy’s Cinque Terre on 9/11, filming a TV show. I figure that the first plane hit the North Tower just when we were filming the romantic Via dell’Amore, the “Pathway of Love,” which is a lovers’ meeting point between the towns of Riomaggiore and Manarola. I’ve walked it on five or six trips since, and for me, the Via dell’Amore is no longer the “Pathway of Love”… it’s the “Pathway of 9/11.”

Hiking with our TV gear into the next village, we found a tiny bar packed with people as if it were a makeshift theater. Everyone was staring, jaws dropped, at the TV. I saw the smoldering tower and thought it was some kind of a disaster movie. Then people told me the news. My crew and I gathered outside and decided the only thing we could do was to keep on working.

We had a Rick Steves tour group in Vernazza at the time. That evening, all the Americans were huddling together, wondering what would happen next. There was a line at the town’s one public phone booth. There were two distinct camps of travelers: those who thought, “It’s tragic, but there’s nothing we can do, so keep on traveling”; and those who, psychologically, couldn’t continue with their vacation — but also couldn’t get back home.

My enduring memory was of solidarity — Americans caring for each other and locals caring for Americans. All the people of the Cinque Terre were Americans with us; they did what they could to help us out during that disturbing time, when no one knew what was coming next. My Italian friend reminded me of how, a few years earlier, he had taken me to his village war memorial and told me that America had never really experienced a war like Italy had. Shaking his head sadly, he said, “Now, in a way, you have.” (In my September Travel News, read what I wrote back then, along with a poignant collection of emails travelers sent us in the days after 9/11.)

I played out many scenarios in my mind about what would follow. Might this horrible event be a bridge that connected us with a world that already well-understood suffering and national grief on the scale of 9/11? Might it give us empathy? Or would we seek revenge? Would we respond to this despicable act as a crime or as an act of war? And, if an act of war, whom would we fight?

Looking back over the last decade, it seems that by reacting with such fervor to a tragedy Bin Laden had engineered precisely to get that reaction, we as a society richly rewarded his actions. Bin Laden was unable to radicalize Islam himself, but he knew the USA could do it for him. And, from my perspective, we did. In the interest of “national security,” we would compromise the values so fundamental to what makes us Americans. Instead of aspiring to be the gentle giant who responded to overseas crises swiftly and with compassion, or who patiently stood up to the oppressive communist ideology through a Cold War that spanned generations, we became a reactionary, vengeful country that threw out the rulebook — unilaterally going to war, employing torture techniques, and holding suspected terrorists without trial for years on end. And with each step away from our bedrock morals, we unwittingly demonstrated to the Arab world that America was to be feared and hated. Looking back, I don’t think Bin Laden — whose deputy has said, “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media” — could have hoped for a better result. Could it be that the USA is a different place today not because of 9/11, but because of our extreme reaction to 9/11?

In the travel industry, people stopped buying tours for a while. Many on my staff wondered if we’d be able to survive. For the first time in my career, simply making our payroll was a challenge. I gathered my co-workers and told them, “We’ll be giddy flagships of confidence — for the good of our business and even more important, for the good of our nation.” I knew that in order for Americans to understand things from a broader perspective — and there would be lots to try to understand in the coming years — travel was now more important than ever. While some considered those of us who tried to “take 9/11 in stride” unpatriotic, I had a strong sense that for our very national security it was more important than ever that the USA find ways to be a part of the family of nations. We made a huge effort to keep people traveling.

In the months after 9/11, I remember giving my travel talks to large groups. There was some question whether it was even appropriate to encourage travel and vacationing while our nation was in mourning. But the organizations who invited me to talk soldiered on. The Society of American Travel Writers asked me to be their keynote speaker in Las Vegas, and the AARP hired me to come to Houston to give a big talk at their convention. In my first big speaking gigs after 9/11, talking about packing light and catching the train seemed silly considering the trauma our nation was going through. My message morphed into a political one, encouraging Americans to travel because we need to better understand our world with firsthand, people-to-people experiences. It was a scary experience from a speaking point of view. But, in a nation that seemed determined — in lockstep — to shrink back from the world, I felt driven to advocate the opposite response, to embrace the world. By standing in front of a group and saying, “Get a grip, America,” it seemed people needed permission to move on. People found it cathartic. The SATW and AARP talks were perhaps the most exhilarating of my career. This was the year I came to see the role of a travel writer as being like the medieval jester — to go out, learn what’s happening outside the castle, come home, and tell the king the truth.

In the long run, the impact of 9/11 on our business has been both expected and surprising. Predictably, our tour sales took a big dip in 2002, and we no longer sell Swiss Army knives (because you can’t carry them onto an airplane). Just as predictably, after a couple of years of post-9/11 jitters, demand for travel surged once again. But 9/11 also inspired me to speak out more boldly about the politics of travel. I now routinely give talks about the value of travel as a force for peace all over the country. And that talk spawned a new book that was named the travel book of the year in 2010 by the SATW — Travel as a Political Act.

I noticed that the US State Department has issued a travel advisory for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In our post-9/11 world, considering the importance of building bridges rather than walls, I’d like to issue an advisory against not traveling. In fact, on 9/11/11, I’ll be in Europe myself…traveling on and immersing myself in our beautiful world, just as I have been for the last decade.

Happy Travels,

Rick Steves