On a recent morning, Rick Steves was wandering around the ancient Tuscan town of Volterra with a new crop of tour guides. His company’s trips to Europe are set to resume in February after a nearly two-year pandemic hiatus, and the guides were midway through a nine-day trip around Italy to learn “what makes a Rick Steves tour a Rick Steves tour.” One of the stops on their itinerary was Volterra, a medieval hilltop town whose stone walls are 800 years old. Mr. Steves — who has been to Tuscany many times for his popular public broadcasting show and YouTube channel — was relishing being back.
“We’re surrounded by the wonders of what we love so much, and it just makes our endorphins do little flip-flops,” he said during a phone interview.
That unabashed enthusiasm has fueled Mr. Steves’s empire of guidebooks, radio shows and TV programs, as well as tours that have taken hundreds of thousands of Americans overseas since he started running them in 1980.
Along the way, Mr. Steves has built a reputation for convincing hesitant Americans to make their first trip abroad — and that first trip is often to Europe, which Mr. Steves has called “the wading pool for world exploration.” But he also speaks passionately about the value of travel to places like El Salvador and Iran, and he’s open about how his time in other countries has shaped his views on issues like world hunger and the legalization of marijuana.
But Europe remains Mr. Steves’s bread and butter, and he’s back on the Continent now — both to prepare for the return of his tours and to work on a six-hour series on European art and architecture that he hopes will be broadcast on U.S. public television next fall. As he wandered through Volterra, we talked about why he doesn’t count the number of countries he’s visited, why his tour company will require vaccinations and why a world without travel would be a more dangerous place.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What does it feel like to be back in Europe?
I’m working with 20 local guides here and people are almost tearfully emotional about the rekindling of tourism. Professional tour guides have been on hold for two seasons, and they’re just so filled with joy to be able to do what they do, because guides are wired to enthuse and inspire and teach about their culture and their art and their history. And it’s just so fun to be here and be filled with hope. And while we’re still in the pandemic, we’re also coming out of it and there’s an energy in the streets and in the museums.
Do you think Americans are ready to travel overseas again?
I would say it’s not for everybody, but if you don’t mind being well-organized and if you’re enthusiastic about following the regulations and rules, it’s not a big deal. And Europe is ahead of the United States, I believe, in fighting Covid. There’s a huge respect for masks. More museums are requiring reservations to get in because they want to make sure it’s not crowded. It’s kind of a blessing, actually. I was just in the Vatican Museum and really enjoying the Sistine Chapel because it wasn’t so darned crowded. That was an amazing experience for me because the last time I was there, I had to wear shoulder pads.
You have long held that travel can do a lot of good in the world, but what about carbon emissions, overcrowding and other negative effects of travel?
Climate change is a serious problem and tourism contributes a lot to it, but I don’t want to be flight-shamed out of my travels, because I think travel is a powerful force for peace and stability on this planet. So my company has a self-imposed carbon tax of $30 per person we take to Europe. In 2019, we gave $1 million to a portfolio of organizations that are fighting climate change. We gave half that amount in 2020, even though we stopped bringing people to Europe after the pandemic hit. It’s nothing heroic. It’s just the ethical thing to do.
And in terms of other problems, when you go to Europe, you can consume in a way that doesn’t dislocate pensioners and ruin neighborhoods. Landlords anywhere in the world can make more money renting to short-term tourists than long-term local people. So, if you complain that a city is too touristy and you’re staying in an Airbnb — well, you’re part of the problem.
But we would be at a great loss if we stopped traveling, and the world would become a more dangerous place. We need to travel in a “leave only footprints, take only photos” kind of way. What you want to do is bring home the most beautiful souvenir, and that’s a broader perspective and a better understanding of our place on the planet — and then employ that broader perspective as a citizen of a powerful nation like the United States that has a huge impact beyond our borders.
How do you try to encourage people to travel in a meaningful way?
The responsibility of the travel writer is to help people travel smarter, with more experience, and more economically and more efficiently. And everybody has their own idea of what that is, but for me, it’s about remembering that travel is all about people. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new. So we’re trying to help Americans travel in a way that’s more experiential and more thought-provoking and more transformational. You know, you can have transformational travel or you can just have a shopping trip and a bucket list.
You’ve said that you don’t keep track of how many countries you’ve visited. Why is that?
Why would you? Is it a contest? Anybody who brags about how many countries they’ve been to — that’s no basis for the value of the travel they’ve done. You could have been to 100 countries and learned nothing, or you can go to Mexico and be a citizen of the planet. I find that there’s no correlation between people who count their countries and people who open their heart and their soul to the cultures they’re in.
I hear you’re working on a big new project. What’s that about?
Something I’ve been preparing to do for 20 years is to collect all the most beautiful art experiences we’ve included in our TV show and weave it together into a six-hour series of European art and architecture. We’ve been working on the show for the last year, and it’s going to be my opus magnum, my big project. It’s going to make art accessible and meaningful to people in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen on TV before. I’m inspired by people who have done art series in the past, and I’ve got a way to look at it through the lens of a traveler. I’m very excited about it. It’s just a cool creative challenge.
What have things been like for your tour company since the pandemic hit?
Well, 2019 was our best year ever. We took 30,000 Americans on about 1,200 different tours and we were just euphoric. We had 2020 essentially sold out when Covid hit, and then we had to cancel everything, so we had to send back 24,000 deposits. We all hunkered down, and I’ve done what I can to keep my staff intact. A couple of months ago, we decided we’re confident about the spring of 2022, so we opened the floodgates and immediately those 24,000 people that had to cancel two years ago — basically, they re-signed up. And now we’ve got 29,000 people signed up out of 30,000 seats for next year.
So we’re doing really good, but we just have to continue the diligence in our society and in Europe of fighting Covid responsibly. So I’m kind of losing patience with anti-vaxxers. Maybe they’re exercising their liberty, but they’re also impacting a lot of other people. So we’ve just decided to require that people have vaccinations to go on our tours. Here in Europe, unvaccinated people would be standing outside most of the time anyway — because they couldn’t get into the restaurants, onto the train, onto the bus or into the museums. The world is getting progressively smaller for people who want to travel but not get a vaccination.
Do you think travel will ever feel normal again?
There were certain people who decided they didn’t want to travel after 9/11 because they didn’t want to deal with security. You know, those people have a pretty low bar for folding up their shop. I got used to the security after 9/11, and I’m getting used to Covid standards now. But I do think that, come next year, we’ll be back to traveling again — and I hope that we’ll all be better for it.
Paige McClanahan is the host of The Better Travel Podcast.
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