Tourism directors and businesses on Route 66 want to draw more European travelers but aren’t sure how to do so. So who better to give advice than a European who’s a longtime Route 66 fan?
Swa Frantzen of Belgium fit the bill during his presentation at the Miles of Possibility conference in Edwardsville, Illinois, on Oct. 30. He launched the first Route 66 website in 1994 (and plans an upgrade of the site soon), travels Route 66 regularly and also goes to the East Coast for his work in computer security.
Frantzen began the presentation with these questions: What got me interested? When did he first learn of Route 66? Like many other Europeans, he wasn’t sure.
“Route 66 has been there, always,” he explained.
He said Europeans primarily learn of Route 66 through films such as “Easy Rider” and “Thelma and Louise.” Frantzen said the “Route 66” television show from the 1960s isn’t a factor because it’s not broadcast in Europe. He said the “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” song has some influence, but far less than movies.
He said Europeans primarily associate Route 66 with rock music, being on the road, freedom and Harley Davidson motorcycles. The association with Harleys is so strong, Frantzen said, even people who hold no interest in motorcycles want to drive Route 66 in a Harley.
He said the image of a Route 66 shield painted on a desert road is common in the European imagination.
But Frantzen said Europeans’ knowledge of Route 66 is rudimentary — most hold little information about practical matters, which is one of the obstacles to them traveling it. Many also incorrectly think it’s a coast-to-coast highway, the longest highway, or the oldest highway.
“People know of Route 66, but we are surprised it was a real road,” he said. “They’re surprised it can be driven.
Another hesitation for traveling the Mother Road is what Frantzen and many other Europeans call “American conditions.” They are:
- Los Angeles traffic (which Frantzen said isn’t bad relative to many big European cities)
- Air pollution
- Lack of gun control
- Violence, riots and police brutality
- High health-care costs
- High court costs
Frantzen said the European press is “very left-wing” compared to what is in the United States. And he said U.S. politics is “far more right” than any European politician. When American critics call President Barack Obama a socialist, he and other Europeans tend to dismiss it.
“You haven’t met a socialist,” he said.
Frantzen said correct and more-balanced information on “controversial topics” is needed for prospective European travelers — something he tries to offer with the forum page of his Route 66 website.
Other differences between American and European culture:
- Talking to strangers is a common American trait, but it’s unusual in Europe. A suddenly spontaneous chat from an American often puts Europeans on the defensive.
- Politics is much more private in Europe — namely because many countries have 15 political parties or more.
- Religion is less important in Europe. “The churches there are mostly empty,” he said. “You (Americans) wear your religion on your sleeve or on a sticker of your car.”
- Gun ownership in Europe is much less, Frantzen said, and noted even British police officers are unarmed. “Guns in a heavily populated area is very difficult to explain to Europeans.” He said one way European visitors can comprehend it better is to give an example of a Western rancher who needs firearms to protect himself and his livestock from predatory animals and criminals on his isolated land.
Another obstacle to Europeans traveling Route 66 is the high cost. He said renting a Harley or convertible, plus the drop-off fees, plus overseas flights, plus lodging wind up making it an expensive trip. An exotic beach vacation, he said, is cheaper than doing Route 66. Interestingly, he said fuel costs on Route 66 aren’t much of a hurdle, namely because gasoline in the U.S. is half the cost compared to Europe.
Europeans have much more vacation time, Franzen said — up to 35 paid holidays. Taxes in Europe are high, however.
Regarding historic preservation, Franzen said Europe’s heritage properties are heavily protected. If such a property is torn down without permission, the owner is subject to criminal prosecution and must rebuild it. Properties from more-recent eras, such as art nouveau, however, are neglected. And historic industrial buildings are not protected.
Authenticity is valued by Europeans, and that includes so-called eyesore properties, Frantzen said. Historic sites shouldn’t be “overly restored,” and streetscaping and beautification efforts aren’t deemed authentic by Europeans.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty, clean, cheerful, slick and freshly painted,” he said. “Don’t be so quick to repaint it.”
Originality also is valued by European travelers. Frantzen says efforts by towns to set up a Route 66 museum, a welcome gateway, murals on every wall and painted water towers are too common.
With historic preservation, Frantzen says a mantra of “preserve if you can, restore if you have to” should be adopted. Restoration, he said, should be done carefully, or else you irreversibly lose the property’s originality.
(More stories from the Miles of Possibility Conference will be posted in the coming days.)