As Europe reopens in the wake of the pandemic, so too will the multiplatform empire of Rick Steves, one of America’s most prominent experts on travel to the region. The TV personality, guidebook author, and tour operator has been helping to make the Continent more accessible to U.S. travelers for more than four decades. And on June 7, Steves aims to stoke the nation’s appetite for travel to the region with Rick Steves Europe Awaits, a two-hour special featuring highlights from his favorite destinations, distributed by American Public Television on public stations nationwide.
Over his long career, Steves’s mission has evolved far beyond inspiring and enabling Americans to travel to Europe. Today, he’s an outspoken voice in responsible travel, tackling issues ranging from sustainability to overtourism. In 2019, he introduced a self-imposed carbon tax of $30 per person, pulled from profits on the 30,000 people that ventured to Europe through his company that year. That’s $900,000, which he rounded to $1 million before donating that money to a portfolio of agriculture, agroforestry, and conservation projects in developing countries.
Even with no revenue during the 2020 pandemic year, Steves still gave $500,000 to those organizations to help them stay afloat during a lean year. In Europe Awaits, he puts the spotlight on small, multigenerational businesses like agriturismo farm hotels and cheese makers, rather than large chains, and many in lesser-known parts of popular countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and the U.K.
After initially laying off a handful of recent hires, Steves used his personal savings to keep his Edmonds, Washington staff of nearly 100 paid through the pandemic. As he and his team begin to rev up their travel operation again, we caught up with him to find out how he’s preparing for the end of the pandemic, what he misses most about the Continent, and what his worries and hopes are for the future of European travel.
How deeply did the pandemic affect business?
We had 24,000 people who had made deposits on Rick Steves bus tours, and we had to spend the beginning of 2020 sending back all those deposits. Sure, it’s disappointing from a business point of view, but it was heartbreaking considering all those travel dreams that were so lovingly put together that had to be dashed or put on hold.
I’ve got a hundred people on my staff here in Edmonds and basically no revenues, and then I’ve got a hundred guides in Europe who are independent contractors who have no work while there’s no tourism. We’re just waiting to throttle up. And then you wonder how many businesses in Europe survived the pandemic.
A big concern of mine is all these wonderful little mom and pops and creative ventures—they’re a dimension of Europe that attracts me so much. How does a little guesthouse or little café or restaurant, trattoria, or museum make it through this period? I’m hoping and praying they’ll still be standing when we come out of the pandemic. I think they’re surviving this year with local patronage and government help, but just barely. But once we come out of the pandemic, our thoughtful patronage will help them to be vital again.
Now that European borders seem to be opening in June, will your tours begin again?
We’ve got about 20,000 people who have put their names on waiting lists for tours. With an event like this COVID pandemic, demand does not dissipate. It just gets backed up, and people want to travel. In Europe there’s going to be a big warm welcome when we can finally travel again, and we are confident that in early 2022, it will be stable enough for us to do our tours responsibly and safely. In the next week or so we’re going to be taking deposits for tours in early 2022, and after a couple of months, if things go really well, we may open up a few tours in late 2021. But I’m being very patient and conservative about that.
What needs to happen before you fully relaunch your tours?
First things first: We need people in Europe and the United States to get their vaccinations so we can have that herd immunity and travel comfortably across the Atlantic. I don’t want to fly all the way to Amsterdam to sit in a bubble. I want to have my cheeks kissed in Paris, and I want to go to the piazzas of Rome and get my gelato and do a passeggiata with people in the streets. And I want to pack into those little pubs in Ireland and clink glasses. I really believe that strangers are just friends who get to meet. That’s why I travel, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to do that if we’re just patient and diligent when it comes to getting our shots.
In Europe Awaits, you often focus on the less-crowded areas of popular countries. How much does that have to do with overtourism in Europe?
Overtourism was a big issue before the pandemic, and locals in places like Barcelona and Venice and Amsterdam were actually starting to have a bad attitude about the tourists that invaded their cities. And I can understand that. If I were Barcelona, I would lament the death of the Ramblas [one of the city’s main thoroughfares].
[Las] Ramblas was killed by Airbnb, because people who own apartments right there on this wonderful pedestrian boulevard that used to be so characteristic, they can make more money in a week with Airbnb than in a month [with a] local pensioner renting that apartment.
So the rent goes up, the pensioners go out to the suburbs, and the tourists take over the characteristic downtown section. That’s capitalism and that’s free market, but from a culture point of view, it bullies away the vitality of a place like the Ramblas, or downtown Rome, or the canals of Amsterdam, or the back streets of Venice.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen Europeans in tourism hot spots like Venice and Amsterdam take back their piazzas and their cafés in the absence of visitors. How much do you worry about overtourism worsening when travel returns?
I think tourism is going to come back and I think there are going to be crowds again, but I’m hoping people will not just have this crowdsourcing hysteria. Everybody goes to the same places because everybody’s going where everybody’s going on some crowdsourcing app. I think it’s kind of pathetic that people are eating Tex-Mex in Paris. Why? Oh, it’s number one on TripAdvisor. Who are those experts? Well, people who’ve never been to Paris before.
I’m old-fashioned in thinking that you want a travel expert who can curate all the recommendations and who can cut through the superlatives and tell you what really is worth your time and money when you’re traveling. That’s one of the reasons for the Europe Awaits show. It’s going to highlight places that are not the Instagram darlings.
I really believe that strangers are just friends who get to meet.
You could take away the top 10 percent of European marquee attractions, and Europe would be just fabulous. There’s so much to see that people don’t recognize, and I think that’s worth celebrating. I don’t think the collective ethics of the traveling public is going to be that thoughtful, to be honest. I don’t think people are going to say, Oh, it’s tough on the people of Salzburg, let’s go somewhere else. But I think savvy travelers will know that they’ll get a more genuine look at the culture and get a warmer welcome if they go to some of the second cities instead of some of the first cities.
Tell me more about your love for Europe’s second cities.
I’m really into these second cities, so one of my themes lately is to remind people that everybody goes to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dublin; try Belfast. Everybody goes to Munich; try Hamburg. In one part of Europe Awaits, instead of going to Lisbon, Portugal, we’re going to go to Porto, and Porto has this wonderful patina of age. It’s got this sort of intimacy; you wander down the streets and you don’t see other tourists. You just see locals going about their life as they have for generations, and in 2021, that’s so exciting.
All you’ve got to do is rip yourself away from the places that have the big promotional budgets and venture into towns that don’t have a lot of tourism, and it’s quite rewarding. Of course you’re going to still see Edinburgh, and you’re still going to see Munich and Paris, but you’re also going to realize that there are alternatives as well. And some people, well, they still just want to line up and get their selfie where they’re supposed to, with the Matterhorn behind them, and then they let their friends know that they did it right, just like everybody else. They’ve had herd mentality long before we got herd immunity.
Let’s talk about climate change. Over the many years that you’ve traveled to Europe, how has it impacted the Continent?
There are so many examples of climate change impacting tourism in Europe. There’s really no more summer skiing, which used to be a big deal. In the old days, there used to be bullfights where you’d get a cheaper ticket if it was in the shade, and now it’s cheaper in the sun because it’s just too hot to be in the sun, and they moved the bullfight time later in the evening.
People did not traditionally eat outside in Munich, and now if you have a restaurant that doesn’t have a place to eat outside, it basically closes down in the summer. Germany has never had air-conditioning and now hotels there are realizing they have to buy air-conditioning because it’s unsleepable in the summer.
You could take away the top 10 percent of European marquee attractions, and Europe would be just fabulous.
You see towns in southern England that have little flood barriers on their cobblestoned lanes where for a thousand years, they didn’t have flood barriers. And now they have to have little gates, like in Venice, that stop the high water from coming up their main drag. Rotterdam has this massive storm surge barrier, which New Orleans or New York could use, and it’s the size of two Eiffel Towers on their side on wheels that can roll in, in anticipation of high water.
This is real, and it’s all over Europe. Everywhere you go, you see the sad reality that collectively we have not been able to cut back on our consumption, that we we’re contributing to climate change, and individual nations have to spend the money to pay the price.
What can travelers do, and how does your self-imposed carbon tax play a role?
We have to be honest if we’re in the tourism industry that we’re one of the worst culprits when it comes to contributing to [climate change.] And I don’t want to be flight shamed out of travel because travel is really important for peace and nations working together. And it’s part of life. It’s a very valuable thing for Americans to get to know the other 96 percent of humanity.
You can stay home and not produce that carbon, or you could mitigate it. And I really believe in mitigation. That’s our goal, and I don’t gloat about it. It’s nothing heroic. As a tour organizer, I give myself this self-imposed carbon tax, and we create as much good as we create by flying our people to Europe and back. And our travelers can honestly consider themselves, as far as their flights are concerned, carbon neutral.
Given the fact that our government does not tax carbon, we should [impose our own carbon taxes], if we’re ethical businesspeople, because otherwise you’re making too much money. You’re not paying for the cost to society. We’re not just buying carbon offsets, which would be the conventional business approach. We are funding climate smart agriculture and forestry projects in the developing world, helping poor farmers do their work in a way that contributes less to climate change, which we’re very excited about.
What do you miss most about Europe?
As a traveler, it’s all about meeting people, and a great way to meet people is the traditional passeggiata or the paseo. That’s what I miss. When I get back to Europe, after a busy day of researching my guidebooks or leading our tour groups, something I just really love to do is take an hour and check in with the whole local scene, the multigenerational festival of life, and do that as a temporary local.
That whole temporary local idea, that’s the lacing-together factor of the Europe Awaits lineup. Because in Sicily and Mykonos, and the Cotswolds, Portugal, Tuscany, and Romania, these are all opportunities where our viewers on public television can be inspired to travel in a way where they become temporary locals. And then they get to just enjoy that intimate convivial magic of European travel. That’s what makes my work so fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.