A recent morning, Rick Steves wandered the ancient Tuscan city of Volterra with a new crop of tour guides. His company travel to Europe they will resume in February after a nearly two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, and guides were halfway through a nine-day trip to Italy to find out “what makes Rick Steves ‘tour Rick Steves’ tour.” One of the stops on their way was Volterra, a medieval town on a hill whose stone walls are 800 years old. Mr. Steves – who has been to Tuscany several times for his popularity public broadcasting in YouTube channel – he was looking forward to returning.
“We’re surrounded by the wonders of what we love so much, and because of that, our endorphins just jump a little bit,” he said during a phone interview.
This rude enthusiasm encouraged Mr. Steves’ empire of guides, radio and television programs, and tours that have taken hundreds of thousands of Americans abroad since he began leading them in the 1980s.
On this journey, Mr. Steves created a reputation for persuading hesitant Americans to make their first trip abroad – and this first trip is often to Europe, which Mr. Steves called “a pool for exploring the world.” But he also speaks passionately about the value of traveling to places like El Salvador and Iran, and is open to how his time in other countries shaped his views on issues such as world hunger and the legalization of marijuana.
But Europe remains Mr Steves’ bread and butter and is now back on the mainland – 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 televised next fall. As he wandered around Volterra, we talked about why he didn’t count the number of countries he visited, why his tourist company would require vaccinations, and why a world without travel would be a more dangerous place.
Our conversation was slightly edited for clarity and length.
How does it feel to be back in Europe?
I work here with 20 local guides and people are almost in tears excited about the revival of tourism. Professional tour guides have been on hold for two seasons and are so happy to be able to do what they do, as the guides are willing to inspire and inspire and teach about their culture, art and history. And it’s just fun to be here and be filled with hope. And while we are still in a pandemic, we are also emerging from it and there is energy on the streets and in 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 about following the rules and regulations, there’s nothing wrong. I believe that Europe is in the fight against Covid before the United States. There is a lot of respect for masks. Several museums require reservations to enter because they want to make sure there are no crowds. In fact, it is a kind of blessing. I just went to the Vatican Museum and really enjoyed the Sistine Chapel because it wasn’t so damn crowded. It was an amazing experience for me because the last time I was there I had to wear braces.
You have long argued that travel can do a lot of good in the world, but what about carbon emissions, congestion and other negative effects of travel?
Climate change is a serious problem and tourism contributes a lot to it, but I do not want to be ashamed of my travels because I believe that travel is a powerful force for peace and stability on this planet. So my company itself has a carbon tax of $ 30 per person that we take to Europe. In 2019, we allocated $ 1 million portfolio of organizations fighting climate change. We gave half of that amount in 2020, even though we stopped bringing people to Europe after the pandemic. Nothing heroic. It’s just ethical.
And as for other problems, when you go to Europe, you can spend it by not displacing retirees and destroying neighborhoods. Landlords anywhere in the world can earn more money by renting short-term tourists than locals in the long run. So if you’re complaining that the city is too touristy and staying at Airbnb – well, you’re part of the problem.
However, we would be at a great loss if we stopped traveling and the world became more dangerous. We have to travel in a “let’s just leave traces, let’s take photos” way. What you want to do is bring home the most beautiful souvenir, and that is a broader perspective and a better understanding of our city on the planet – and then use that broader perspective as a citizen of a powerful country like the United States that has tremendous influence beyond our borders.
How do you try to encourage people to travel in a meaningful way?
It is the responsibility of the travel writer to help people travel smarter, with more experience, and more economically and efficiently. And everyone has their own idea of what it is, but for me, it’s about remembering that travel is exclusively for people. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. So we try to help Americans travel in a way that is more experiential and more thought-provoking and more transformative. You know, you can have transformational trips or just a shopping trip and a list.
You said you don’t keep track of how many countries you’ve visited. Why is that?
why would Is it a competition? Whoever brags about how many countries he’s been to – that’s not the basis for the value of the trip they’ve made. You could be in 100 countries and learn nothing, or you could go to Mexico and be a citizen of the planet. I find that there is no connection between people who count their countries and people who open their hearts and their souls to the cultures in which they are.
I hear you’re working on a big new project. What is it?
Something I’ve been preparing for for 20 years is to gather all the most beautiful artistic 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 this is going to be my opus magnum, my big project. Art will make people accessible and meaningful in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen on television yet. I am inspired by people who have shot 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 cool creative challenge.
What were things like for your tourism company after the outbreak of the pandemic?
Well, 2019 was our best year so far. We took 30,000 Americans on about 1,200 different tours and we were just euphoric. In 2020, we were basically sold out when Covid was hit, and then we had to cancel everything, so we had to send back 24,000 deposits. We all knelt down and I did everything in my power to keep my staff intact. A few months ago, we decided we were convinced of the spring of 2022, so we opened the door and immediately those 24,000 people who had to quit two years ago – basically re-applied. And now we have registered 29,000 people out of 30,000 seats for next year.
So we are doing really well, but we just need to continue to take care of the responsible fight against Covid in our society and Europe. So I’m kind of losing patience with anti-vaxers. They may be exercising their freedom, but they are also influencing many other people. So we just decided to require people to have vaccinations to go on our trips. Here in Europe, unvaccinated people would stand outside most of the time anyway – because they couldn’t get to restaurants, on the train, on the bus, or in museums. The world is getting smaller for people who want to travel but don’t get vaccinated.
Do you think traveling will ever feel normal again?
Some people have decided that they don’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 safety after 9/11, and now I’m getting used to Covid standards. But I think we’ll be back on the road next year – and I hope we all get better.
Paige McClanahan is the host The Better Travel Podcast.
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