Sometimes even Rick Steves gets it wrong

I have a confession to make. Until one of his writers contacted me and asked if he could join my walking tour to review it for an upcoming guidebook he was writing, I had no idea who Rick Steves was. I didn’t even know he existed.

When I first started writing this blog I read every guidebook about Iceland that I could get my hands on but after a while, I got so frustrated with how many things they got wrong (and how many of them repeated the same bad advice) that I stopped reading them altogether. To be fair, Rick Steves also predominately writes for his American audience, a target group I don’t belong to, so it’s not that strange that I had never heard of him.

By the way, I’m not bashing any guidebook writers here. They often work with impossible time constraints where they must learn everything they can about a destination in a stupidly short amount of time and you simply can’t get everything right under those circumstances. I’m just trying to explain why I didn’t know something that seems so obvious to many.

As it turned out the writer enjoyed our tour very much and wanted to feature it in their book. Which they did and I’m sure it has brought us some business this summer. A while later I was also contacted by one of Rick’s people and asked if I’d be willing to spend a day with the man himself on his upcoming visit to Reykjavík. Which I happily agreed to.

I ended up spending a whole day with him and together we explored things that had been recommended in his book and I for one had a jolly good time.  I learned a lot about how the guidebook business works and I also realized what a big name he is because we were constantly getting stopped on the streets for photos and autographs and half of the people who stopped us had his book in their hands. It didn’t surprise me though that none of the Icelanders we spoke to (staff at the attractions we were checking out etc.) had ever heard of him or his guidebook. See, it’s not just me!

My favorite person who stopped us that day was a lady who was super excited to see him and exclaimed You’re Rick Steves! as she approached us. She then turned to me and said: And you’re the lady from I Heart Reykjavík. It tickled my ego to know that she recognized me too but at the same time it put me in my place because he was Rick Steves and I was that lady.

One of the things we discussed on our day together was this problem that I mentioned before about guidebook writers not having enough time to fully research the places they’re supposed to be guiding people around which often results in bad advice and how fortunate he felt about having good writers working for him on this Iceland book. Which is why I was super surprised to see a post on his Facebook page last night with a video from his travels here in Iceland where he basically encouraged his followers to ignore warning signs they encounter on their travels because the “best adventures often lie just ahead of them”.

Those were not his exact words, but this is what I and most of the 500 people who commented on the post took away from it. When I saw this I first got a little angry because I spend so much time and effort on trying to educate people on how they can return from their trips to Iceland in one piece and without hurting our fragile nature. The anger soon turned into disappointment with the fact that someone with so much influence and clout would say something so counteractive to the efforts made by the Icelandic government, ICE-SAR, park rangers and responsible travel companies all over Iceland.

I know he wasn’t talking about warning signs in Iceland in particular, even though he used a sign here to make his point, but he’s promoting a guidebook about Iceland and it wouldn’t be a huge mental leap for his followers who do make it over here to ignore other signs they encounter on their travels around Iceland. I mean, if Rick Steves does it…

He later took down his original post and posted again where he admitted he had been wrong and where he took everything back. Although he should never have posted this to begin with I think it’s always good when people see the error of their ways and are willing to correct their mistakes and for that, I give him credit. His response seems thoughtful and genuine.

Mind you, I’m not sure Rick Steves personally posted any of this but then at least he has a good team around him that knows when they make a mistake and recognize the responsibility that comes with having such a big platform. I’m sure the backlash they got was a good motivator too – I know the folks who commented on the Facebook post I wrote about this (that is now gone because he deleted the original post) had a few choice words for him.

Now, I don’t know what their intention was with this post. Maybe it was an attempt to reinforce some image of Rick Steves as a real traveler as opposed to a tourist (which we all know is just about the worst thing to be ever called) or maybe that he likes to live dangerously. Maybe they just needed content and they didn’t think about what they were posting. Who knows?

This whole incident does shed a light, though, on a few issues that we as a travel community need to address.

Like this uncontrollable need that people seem to have these days for exploring things “off the beaten path” that makes them disregard rules, warnings and common sense for the perfect Instagram photo or bragging rights. Not only do they endanger themselves or the lives of those who have to rescue them if they get themselves into trouble, they also often blatantly disrespect people’s private properties or areas that have some sort of special meaning. Like taking silly selfies at Holocaust memorials. Or taking photos through someone’s window (we’ve had to ask a guest who was just so excited about everything they were seeing not to do that on our walking tour for example).

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there are not many places left that are off this much-discussed beaten path. And if they are, there’s probably a reason for why they should remain so. It’s not our god given right as travelers to see everything there is out there and just forge ahead like bulldozers. We may do things by accident that we later realize was not right, in which case we learn from our mistakes and make sure we never do them again, but when we knowingly ignore warning signs or local advice that has to do with our own safety and the safety of others and the nature around us –  I’m sorry but we’re just being assholes.

Here in Iceland, we’re seeing beautiful irreplaceable natural wonders being trampled down and ruined because people think the rules don’t apply to them. It makes me so mad that I can’t even express it with words. It’s not necessarily always tourists, sometimes the locals are no better. I don’t really care who does it – they should all just stop. I’m not even going to get into when I meet people who brag about ignoring road closures in crazy weather so they could make their reservation at whatever restaurant their favorite foodie told them they couldn’t miss.

OK, so I guess I’m angry again.

I would also like us to put to rest this notion that someone isn’t a real traveler if he or she goes on organized tours or only visits well-established attractions with adequate infrastructure. Hauling your ass to a cliff that you may or may not fall off to get a photo for your social media accounts does not make you a better or wiser traveler than Phil the fanny-packer who’s just delighted to see the Golden Circle with 500 of his not so close friends. We’re all tourists according to the dictionary: a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure. We all burn the same carbon dioxide getting from one place to the next and we’re all butt of the local jokes whether we wear Gori-Tex or multi-colored harem pants. Why do we always have to pick sides?

What should matter is whether you’re a compassionate and decent human being that is respectful to your surroundings, no matter whether you’re traveling or at home. That’s what makes a good traveler.

Rant over. I feel better now.

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