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One recent morning, Rick Steves was strolling through the old Tuscan town of Volterra with a new group of tour guides. His company’s trips to Europe will resume in February after a nearly two-year pandemic break, and guides were halfway through a nine-day trip to Italy to find out “what makes a Rick Steves’ tour be a Rick Steves’ tour “. One of the stops on his itinerary was Volterra, a medieval village with 800-year-old stone walls. Mr. Steves, who has been to Tuscany many times for his popular public broadcast program and YouTube channel, was delighted to return.
“We’re surrounded by the wonders of what we love so much, and it just makes our endorphins make little flip flops,” he said during a phone interview.
This brazen enthusiasm has fueled Mr.’s empire of guides, radio programs, and television programs. Steves, as well as tours that have taken hundreds of thousands of Americans abroad since he began directing them in 1980.
Along the way, Mr. Steves has built a reputation for convincing hesitant Americans to make their first trip abroad, and this first trip is often to Europe, which Mr. Steves has called it “the pool for exploring the world.” But he also talks passionately about the value of travel to places like El Salvador and Iran, and is open about how his time in other countries has shaped his views on issues such as world hunger and the legalization of marijuana.
But Europe is still Mr. Bread and butter. Steves, and has now returned to the continent, 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 to the American public. television next fall. As I walked through Volterra, we talked about why it doesn’t count the number of countries it has visited, why its travel company will require vaccinations, and why a world without travel would be a more dangerous place.
Our conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and duration.
How does it feel to return to Europe?
I am working with 20 local guides here and people are almost excited about the revival of tourism. Professional tour guides have been stopped for two seasons and are so full of joy to be able to do what they do, because the guides are designed to excite, inspire and teach about their culture, their art and their history. And it’s a lot of fun to be here and be full of hope. And while we’re still in the pandemic, we’re also coming out of it and there’s energy in the streets and museums.
Do you think Americans are ready to travel abroad again?
I’d say it’s not for everyone, but if you don’t mind being well organized and if you’re excited to follow the rules and regulations, it’s no big deal. And Europe is ahead of the United States, I think, in the fight against Covid. There is a great respect for masks. More museums require reservations to enter because they want to make sure it’s not full. It’s kind of a blessing, in fact. It was just in the Vatican Museum and I really enjoyed the Sistine Chapel because it wasn’t so crowded. It was an amazing experience for me, because the last time I was there, I had to carry shoulders.
He has long argued that travel can do very well 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 my travels to make me ashamed of flying, because I believe 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 that we bring to Europe. In 2019, we donated $1 million to a portfolio of organizations that are fighting climate change. We donated half of that amount in 2020, even though we stopped bringing people to Europe after the pandemic. It’s nothing heroic. It’s just an ethical thing to do.
And when it comes to other issues, 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 by renting tourists in the short term than locals in the long run. So if you’re complaining that a city is too touristy and you’re staying on an Airbnb, well, you’re part of the problem.
But we would be very lost if we stopped traveling, and the world would become a more dangerous place. We need to travel in a way like “just leave footprints, just take photos”. What you want to do is bring home the most beautiful memory, and that is 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 it has a great 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, more experienced, and more economically and efficiently. And everyone has their own idea of what that is, but for me, it’s about remembering that traveling is about people. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. So we’re trying to help Americans travel in a more experiential, more thoughtful, and more transformative way. You know, you can make transformative trips or you can just take a shopping trip and a to-do list.
You said don’t keep track of how many countries you’ve visited. Why that?
Why would you do that? Is it a contest? Whoever brags about how many countries he has been to, this is not a basis for the value of the trips they have made. You could have been to 100 countries and learned nothing, or you could go to Mexico and be a citizen of the planet. I find that there is no correlation between the people who count their countries and the people who open their heart and soul to the cultures in which they find themselves.
I’ve heard you’re working on a great new project. What is this?
One thing I’ve been preparing to do for 20 years is to pick up all the most beautiful art experiences we’ve included in our TV show and weave them into a six-hour series of European art and architecture. We’ve been working on the show for the last year, and it will be my opus magnum, my big project. It will make art accessible and meaningful to people in a way I don’t think we’ve seen before on television. I’m inspired by people who have done art series in the past, and I have a way of looking at it through the lens of a traveler. I am very excited about this. It’s just a great creative challenge.
How have things been for your travel company since the pandemic?
Well, 2019 was our best year. We took 30,000 Americans on about 1,200 different tours and we were euphoric. We had 2020 practically exhausted when Covid arrived, and then we had to cancel everything, so we had to return 24,000 deposits. We all crouched down and did what I could to keep my staff intact. A couple of months ago, we decided to trust the spring of 2022, so we opened the floodgates and immediately those 24,000 people who had to cancel two years ago basically re-signed up. And now we have 29,000 people registered out of the 30,000 places for next year.
So we are doing very well, but we just need to continue the diligence in our society and in Europe to fight Covid responsibly. So I’m losing patience with anti-vaxxers. They may be exercising their freedom, but they are also affecting many other people. So we just decided to demand that people have vaccinations to go on our excursions. Here in Europe, unvaccinated people would be out most of the time anyway, because they could not get into restaurants, the train, the bus or the museums. The world is getting smaller and smaller for people who want to travel but don’t get vaccinated.
Do you think traveling will never feel normal again?
There were some people who decided they didn’t want to travel after 9/11 because they didn’t want to deal with security. You know, these people have a pretty low bar to fold their store. I got used to security after 9/11 and now I’m getting used to Covid standards. But I think next year we’ll be traveling again, and I hope we’re all better.
Paige McClanahan is the presenter of The Better Travel Podcast.
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