Thoughtful Travel and Mixing Politics with Business

Before, during, and after the recent election, I wasn’t afraid to let my customers know my politics (as usual). I believe that it’s very American to openly share ideas with people you have things in common with (in the case of my fans, travel). I enjoy explaining the way Europeans view political issues…and you can take it or leave it. While this approach is risky (and I was “un-friended” by a few former Facebook fans post-Election Day), I’m relieved not to have to hide my beliefs from the people who buy what I produce. Seattle Business magazine recently ran an article about this (admittedly unorthodox) approach to running a business.

Speaking of my quirky business and travel sense, I recently gave an interview to Allyson Marrs from Bellevue Club Reflections magazine about my travel philosophy. I thought you might find my answers interesting:

Are you constantly looking for new places to explore in each country because of all the tourists who now visit previously “low key” spots after reading your guides?
Yes, but the real coup is to go to the best places (which are now “discovered”) and figure out how to experience them in a candid, “Back Door” way. Rather than find an untouristy French city, do Paris in an untouristy way. I also like to challenge people to break loose when it comes to going east or south.

What are you specifically looking for in locations, hotels, and attractions to recommend to your many fans and readers?
Mom-and-pops rather than chain hotels and restaurants and pubs. Hands-on experiences rather than sitting in an auditorium with lots of tourists to see clichés on stage.

How do you think traveling in Europe benefits Americans’ everyday lives and thinking?
If you never leave America, your worldview is shaped by our media, which has an agenda to keep us fearful and ethnocentric. When we travel, we gain an empathy for and understanding of the other 96 percent of humanity. What’s not to like about that?

You said in a Salon interview, “As a travel writer, I get to be the provocateur, the medieval jester. I go out there and learn what it’s like and come home and tell people truth to their face.” Tell me about some of these experiences in European regions.
A big opportunity here is to see how counterproductive it is for a society to try to legislate morality. Europe is pretty good at living in close quarters with people who see things differently and live differently. Europe is far from perfect, but they learn from their experiences. Think of how militaristic Germany used to be, and how pacifistic it is today. Spaniards still gravitate to the town square for the evening paseo. Italians still spend long evenings lingering over a meal. Scandinavians may be the least church-going people in Europe, but they celebrate humanism as a religion. It’s all very thought-provoking and stimulating to me.

How do you transform from a tourist to a traveler?
A tourist sees spectacles on stage, collects souvenirs, and leaves home with no desire to come back any different than when they left. A traveler becomes a temporary local, collects experiences, and returns with more empathy for people who have different cultural baggage and see things differently than he or she does. A traveler wants to grow and come home changed. I’m not saying one is right and the other is wrong. And they aren’t mutually exclusive. These are two different kinds of activities that both involve travel — one recreational and/or hedonistic, the other transformative.

Why is it important to you to make Americans more thoughtful, curious world travelers?
There are powerful forces in our society that would rather we’d all just stay home and live out our lives as mindless producer/consumers. They’d prefer we had no interest in challenging our societal norms by hanging out with people who find different truths to be self-evident and God-given. In a globalized world, we need a global outlook — or we, as a society, will be victims of change rather than shapers of change.

Anything new coming up? New book? Television special?
I’m planning on researching and producing shows on Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian lands in the coming year. And my big challenge will be producing an hour-long special on the Holy Land that sorts out and cultural and historic foundations of the stress and strife between Israel and the Palestinian territories today — similar to the way we tackled Iran a few years ago with a public television special. Raising awareness of the context and roots of the problems in the Middle East from a sightseeing and travelers’ perspective, in a way that simply humanizes the region rather than gets bogged down on specific political controversies, is a challenge I am eager to take on.

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