In the '90s, his focus evolved into helping travelers appreciate European history, art and culture.
"In the last decade, I've been teaching people to broaden their perspectives, to gain empathy for other people," Steves said Thursday. "I want to help Americans understand we're all in this together."
Now, the 58-year-old Edmonds resident is about to be the first recipient of the European Union's Outstanding Friend of Europe Award.
He is scheduled to accept the award from Joao Vale de Almeida, the European Union's ambassador to the United States, at a public event Monday night at the University of Washington.
Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, his Edmonds-based business, is now a travel empire. With his engaging manner as a foundation, the business includes tours, books, TV productions and more. He has as much zeal for discovery as he did in the 1970s when he started with a UW Experimental College course and a self-published book.
"We want to reward people who are not politicians, who are active in the civil society in Europe," Vale de Almeida said by phone Friday.
A native of Portugal, Vale de Almeida first met Steves when the American visited the ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C. He describes Steves as "very funny," and said he was struck by how Steves goes "beyond the traditional concept of tourism."
"I was very impressed by him, the emotional relationship he has with Europe," Vale de Almeida said. "I have seen him on TV many times. He is very genuine in his understanding and tolerance."
The ambassador will tour Seattle this week before traveling to Hawaii. He has been in Washington, D.C., three years, but this is his first visit to the Northwest. He will visit several companies while here, Amazon and Starbucks among them.
The 28-nation European Union has created a single market, promoting free trade and common policies among its members. Negotiations are pending between the EU and the United States on a possible free-trade deal.
Steves spoke by phone from Atlanta on Thursday before flying back to Seattle. He had been on a tour of American cities for more than a week. "It's fun to get out and see the impact our teaching has had, everywhere I go," said Steves, who has no idea how many people have used him as their guide to Europe. "For 30 years my passion has been teaching people to learn from my mistakes."
Although the 21st century has been described as the Pacific century, with an economic emphasis on Asia, Steves sticks with what he knows best.
"Europe, from my point of view, we're sort of sister societies," he said. Many Americans share ancestry with Europeans, along with faith, traditions, democracy and capitalism. "That's our heritage. We learn from each other and celebrate our partnership. That's my passion, and what the European Union is recognizing," he said.
"I focus on Europe not because it's the future, but because it's our past," he said, noting that 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Steves' attention is back on travel after his 2012 push for the passage of Initiative 502, which made possession of less than an ounce of marijuana legal in Washington. He joked that while he doesn't know what the EU award will look like, as a winner of the High Times "Cannabis Cup" he was given "a cheap little plastic thing."
The marijuana victory, though, is no joke to Steves. He is proud of Washington voters. Although he said "we all believe marijuana is a drug that can be abused," Steves will be glad to see the curbing of what he called "pot prohibition profiteers," those who make fortunes on illegal marijuana.
"The people in our state who spearheaded this law were mainstream, unscary people. We really care about our community," said Steves, who believes pot use will not increase with legalizaton.
Steves has a message meant to push travelers outside their comfort zones.
"Especially in an age when a lot of people are pushing fear, the worst thing is to stay home. Building bridges is much more constructive," he said. "If you have a good European trip, you will want to explore more of the world. To me, Europe is the wading pool for world exploration."
His topic at Monday's event, at 7 p.m. in Kane Hall on the UW campus, is "Travel as a Political Act."
"I'm challenging Americans to take the opportunity, if they are going traveling, to go to Managua as well as Mazatlan. If you go to Mazatlan, you'll have a wonderful time -- and protect yourself from the world," he said. "If you went to Managua, you would have empathy for the half of humanity trying to live on $2 a day. You would come home literally changed."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, email@example.com.
See Rick Steves
Rick Steves will be presented the European Union's Outstanding Friend of Europe Award by Joao Vale de Almeida, the EU's Ambassador to the United States, at an event 7-9 p.m. Monday in Kane Hall 130 on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Steves will talk about "Travel as a Political Act." Event free, but register at www.ricksteves.com/eu.
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