S2, E19: Rick Steves Wants to Save the World, One Trip at a Time

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we speak with travel legend Rick Steves about ethical travel and his climate smart commitment.

In the world of travel, Rick Steves is a household name. Since he launched his company in 1976, he has sent millions of Americans abroad, either through his guided tours or via his many, many guidebooks. But his mission—to get people to travel, no matter where—comes with a carbon cost. And Rick decided to do something about it. This week’s episode of Unpacked is part one of a two-week series that highlights his climate commitment, as well as his fascinating, wide-ranging views on “road as school.”


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week we’re unpacking climate change, travel, and a bunch of other stuff with none other than Rick Steves. I’m sure you know of Rick Steves. He’s been around for decades. Most people adore him. He has dozens of shows, a podcast of his own, called Travel with Rick Steves.

But funny story: I kind of grew up with Rick. I was born and raised in Washington State, not far from his headquarters in Edmonds, and my grandparents—both huge travelers—were big Rick Steves fans from the moment he set up shop. So growing up, we had the Rick Steves backpacks, the Rick Steves money belts, and yes, the Rick Steves guidebooks. So of course, I took him for granted. And I didn’t think of him much beyond, “Oh yeah, he’s the Europe guy. And I have his money belt.” But as an adult traveler, I’ve come to know Rick Steves in a different way. I’ve seen him as an activist, a thoughtful pilgrim and scholar of the world, and someone who encourages people to leave their comfort zones and revel in the world. He’s also a passionate environmentalist, who wanted to find a way to reconcile his push for travel with the issues around travel and climate change. It’s not an easy subject.

He came on the show to talk about his Climate Smart Commitment, which is essentially a self-imposed carbon tax. For every traveler his company takes to Europe, they pledge $30 to a variety of very carefully selected nonprofits. We’re going to be hearing more about the program in next week’s episode. But this week, we’re just going to hear from Rick. Our conversation was wide-ranging and surprising, touching on climate change, flying, dual-narrative travel, borders, and so much more. Let’s listen in.

Aislyn: Rick, welcome to Unpacked.

Rick Steves: Nice to be with you.

Aislyn: So we’re going to be unpacking climate change and travel, which is a topic that’s, you know, really near and dear to our hearts here at AFAR. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing it. I believe that you have as well. And, uh, when we speak with Craig Davidson, your COO, we’re going to be learning about your Climate Smart Commitment.

But for right now, I’d love to just focus on the more personal side of it, um, because I really admire your ethical approach to the world. So why is climate change so important to you?

Rick: Well, it’s a big deal for everybody, or it should be. It’s just some people are tuned into it and some people aren’t. And, uh, whether you’re in travel or not, it should be of concern. And I think, you know, slowly we’re waking up, but it’s, uh, it’s time to blow some whistles and, and get people going on this.

And of course, I’m in the travel business, and that’s the big white elephant in the travel industry. We’re all excited about travel. We all love the world. We’re all environmentalists and so on. But we all make money by taking people on the road and, um, you know, we’re, we’re contributing to the problem.

So we have to decide what are the ethics of travel in a warming world.

Aislyn: And what was the thought process in your mind that eventually led to this very concrete program?

Rick: Well, we’ve been looking around for a solution to [the question], how can we be an ethical tour organizer, for more than 10 years. And, you know, we’ve been trying different things. For a couple of years we were buying trees. Somebody told us if you—[it] costs two bucks a tree and if you buy six trees, that’ll mitigate the carbon cost of flying to Europe and back.

Well, K. You know, take, take a hundred people, that’s 600 trees and we’re all good. But that just felt a little too easy. Uh, and then there’s a lot of, uh, developed world corporations just buy into carbon offsets and we’d looked into that, and I just didn’t like [having] a broker and investing in a rich company in a rich world. I wanted to connect with the developing world. And um, I believe that climate change is an existential threat to much more than tourism, I mean, to our, our way of life, to civilization. And from a Gaia point of view, you know, maybe human beings are just a rash on this planet and it’s time for us to get out of the way.

And, uh, you know, we’re doing a good job of that. But I don’t like to think of it in that terms. I like to think that this is a—this beautiful planet we’re blessed with is, is, uh, something we can be good stewards of. And, to me, I just wish there was a way that we could very confidently and assuredly and honestly pay for our carbon. And that’s what we’re looking for.

We contribute to climate change. There’s no doubt about that. There is climate change, there’s no doubt about that. And it’s gotta be dealt with better now than later. There’s no doubt about that. Um, but there’s also a real value in travel. More than vacation. I’m, I’m all over having a good vacation on the road, but over the years, I find myself, um, mixing in being a tourist, being a traveler, and being a pilgrim. And, uh, you know, when you get out, you get to know more about the world and, and you, you fall in love with the world and you have an empathy and a better understanding of the, uh, 96 percent of humanity that’s outside of our borders.

And coming outta COVID, I’m pretty convinced that the, um, challenges confronting us in the future are gonna be blind to walls and conventional weaponry. And they’re gonna require, uh, respect for the environment and ability to work with other nations. The challenges that we’re going to be dealing with, whether it’s a pandemic or climate change, it can’t be a win-lose thing. It’s gotta be win-win. If you win north of the border and people are losing south of the border, it’ll just blow over the border and we’re all in trouble. So we need to be smart about this and we’ve gotta work with a globalized, you know, community. Um, and we do that through travel. A long-winded way of saying travel is an important part of the equation for us to be sustainable on this planet.

We need to know each other. The trend lately is to build walls and, and hunker down, and treat everybody as a threat. But, um, that’s a prescription for all sorts of problems down the road. I, I really think the beautiful thing about travel is you bring home the most wonderful souvenir, and that’s the mindset where you’re more inclined to build bridges and less inclined to build walls.

So that’s the plus of travel, and I think it’s a responsibility, kind of a stewardship responsibility. If you’re gonna spend the time and the energy and contribute to environmental problems by your travels, you need to maximize the value of your travels. Why do a billion Muslims aspire to go to Mecca once in their lifetime?

It’s important to get outta your home and see the rest of the world. That’s what Mohamed was all about. He said, “Don’t tell me how educated you’re, tell me how much you’ve traveled.” And progressive Muslims say, “You don’t need to go to Mecca, you just gotta go on a trip, get away from your home and think about it.”

And I’m, I’m similar to that in my own philosophy of “road as church” or, or, you know, “road as school.” And we learn so much more about our home by leaving it. So we need to maximize the benefit of our travel by traveling thoughtfully. And we need to pay our way. We need to pay our carbon costs. Now if you don’t believe in mitigation, well then, you know, forget what I’m gonna say, but for me, mitigation is just arithmetic.

You create X bad, OK? You can [either] not create X bad, or you can create X good in a way that, you know, zeroes out the bad. And that’s kind of what mitigation is.

I believe the scientific reports that I’ve read that explain, if you smartly invest $30 in climate change action, that creates as much good as [the bad from] one individual flying from the United States to Europe and back.

So our program, the Climate Smart [Commitment], it’s nothing to brag about, it’s just baseline ethics. It’s just we’re making too much money on our tour program. When we take 20 or 30,000 people to Europe in one year, we should be paying the cost, which is $30 smartly invested per person.

And then again, it’s nothing heroic for me, it’s just if we had an honest accounting system in this country of ours, we’d be taxed for that, and then it would be invested smartly because that’s a cost to society. That’s a cost to the future. That’s a cost to the whole world when we contribute to climate change.

But we live in a world here in the United States where it’s all about the quarterly profit statement. So we need to give ourselves a self-imposed tax to pay for our carbon, and that’s what we do.

So each year we multiply the number of people that take our tour by $30. This year for instance, we’re taking 30,000 people on Rick Steves’s tours. Multiplied that by $30, it’s $900,000 rounded up to a million dollars. We have a portfolio of 10 organizations, uh, nonprofits, working with farmers in the developing world to help them do their work while contributing less to climate change. And we invest in them a hundred thousand dollars each, on average, these 10 organizations. And we love it. It’s a cool program and, uh, it’s just part of a new, um, I think awareness of how we can travel ethically in a warming world.

Aislyn: Yes, absolutely. So the flight shame movement kind of emerged in 2017 and then it really took off in 2019 when, you know, activist Greta Thunberg took that intentional week sail instead of flying.

Rick: Right.

Aislyn: Was that something—what was your initial reaction to that and did that spark this thinking for you?

Rick: Well, flight shame to me doesn’t mean taking a boat. It means not traveling. And that’s, that’s, that’s an option. I mean, it’s not practical that people are gonna take a boat. It’d be nice if they would, but, you know, I’m a little more pragmatic. You can choose not to travel. That’s a very reasonable decision.

But I believe that if you travel, and you pay for your carbon, and the travel makes you a citizen of the planet, a global citizen—I’ve been, I’ve been dealing with the ethics of travel long before there was climate change. I’ve been teaching for 40 years and I struggled with this back in the last century.

And it was, um, it was an ethical issue of when there’s so much hunger, why should I spend five years’ wages for a struggling family to go to the the Nile, or to go to India, or to go to Guatemala and take photographs of idyllic scenes at the well with women with jugs on their heads? You know, you can romanticize that, but I know that there’s a lot of, uh, economic injustice in the world, and I struggled with this before there was climate change, just the ethics of travel.

And I talked to a lot of people, did a lot of thinking about it and I concluded if you wanna be an ethical traveler, you have an ethical responsibility. If you want to travel to come home with a broader perspective and employ that broader perspective in the voting booth—uh, who wins our election impacts people south of the border more than it even impacts you and me. But what a weird sensibility to take into the voting booth to vote for something other than your own self-interest.

Aislyn: Yes.

Rick: You know, but an enlightened, thoughtful traveler does exactly that. I vote routinely for, for causes and candidates that are not in my self-interest. I just do it because I’ve, I’ve been exposed to the world and I’m thoughtful.

Aislyn: Uh, and you’re also, or the, the organizations that you work with are involved with lobbying the U.S. government, is that correct?

Rick: I’m a big fan of advocacy. I mean, advocacy organizations don’t like to call themselves lobbyists, but that’s what they are. You know, lobbying in itself is not bad. And you can lobby for, uh, government policies that are more smart and, and and compassionate. Uh, for people who are hungry domestically and or internationally. You could lobby for a carbon tax. And what we’re doing is what I’ve—my major philanthropic thing is, um, supporting advocacy organizations that fight hunger because 10 percent of humanity is in extreme poverty trying to live on less than $2 a day.

And that’s hopeless. And my, my philosophy is, um, even if you’re not a “love your neighbor” kind of person, if you know what’s good for you, you don’t want to be filthy rich in a desperately poor country. You know, it’s just not a nice place to raise your kids. You want stability, you better fight hunger. Um, and I think we’re gonna wake up to the fact that if you want stability, you better fight climate change.

Because we get all crazy and freaked out about immigrant problems. We don’t know what immigration problems are until we get hundreds of millions of climate refugees that’s coming our way. This is just the first couple of drops and a lot of the people trying to get it in our country are the first of the climate refugees.

They have not been able to make it on their land. They’ve gone into the cities where it’s too dangerous and they realize the only place we can go is north to the United States. Um, I think that’s an impact of climate change that a lot of people don’t recognize. So, you know, this is very complicated stuff, but I think if we can raise awareness and be smart about it, there’s a reasonable solution.

Uh, but we have to, we have to get serious about minimizing our carbon and then paying for the carbon that we create. You know, it’s coming. There’s a sensibility in Europe right now that people take the train instead of fly. Of course, they got a good train system and why, why would you fly from Madrid to Barcelona when you can get there by train in two and a half hours? That’s just, you don’t need to be an environmentalist to see the wisdom in that. It’s just smarter.

Aislyn: And it’s more pleasurable, right?

Rick: It’s delightful. I love stepping onto the train and enjoying the view and stepping off and not having to go to the airport and everything. And, um, it’s very green. It’s very exciting. And, you know, there’s another example. If an American goes to Spain and sees how good their public transit is and how many alternatives there are to fossil fuel, they come home and, uh, it creates a different political environment where we can get something done.

Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely. I know—if only we had a train system. Well, kind of going back to that idea of mitigation, because this is something that we, of course, have also struggled with and we just did a story about, you know, a climate change reporter who is trying to fly less. Not not fly, but fly less. So that’s something that we have started to encourage is, you know, be more thoughtful about your trips. Go for a longer period of time. Do you also encourage that with your travelers?

Rick: Well yeah, I, but I, I, I would just encourage that in your everyday adulting decisions, does it make sense for 50,000 people to fly back to their alma mater for a football game? I mean, the environmental consequence of people flying for sports is really powerful. Uh, the environmental consequence of a needless war is really powerful.

Uh, the environmental consequence of people flying to conventions. We used to fly 100 of our tour guides from Europe to Seattle every, every January for years. For 10 years, we flew our guides into Seattle for a week-long workshop. Now, because we’ve learned a lot during the pandemic, we do it with webinars and, you know, it’s a shame that we don’t have that personal connection, and we will probably do it every few years. But you don’t need to do it every year. So there’s moderation in these kinds of things.

I spend a lot of energy, uh, trying to think of how in our divided society can we not win and defeat the enemy politically, but how can we come up with reasonable solutions that everybody can embrace, you know?

So, you know, I know that the aeronautics industry is working on much more efficient airliners and there’s huge potential there. I know that we can do things now that don’t take the environmental cost or just the economic cost of—we spent a lot of money flying 100 guides into Seattle and putting them up for a week. Uh, you can just have a webinar. I mean, when I pay for my Zoom webinar license, I do it with, with giddiness. It’s just a, a beautiful alternative to flying people here, you know?

So, you know, there’s ways to really cut back on the carbon cost of our travels, whether it’s domestic for work, for entertainment or exploring the world, there’s ways to cut back on that. And then when we get over there, there’s ways to travel in a way that minimizes [the carbon cost]. But I really believe that when we come home, we, I mean, we need to be changed by our travels. I love, when I’m on the road, to be a cultural chameleon. And I transform from country to country. And then when I come home, I’m changed also.

Aislyn: Absolutely. You know, that, that reminds me that you’ve spoken a lot about that kind of dual-narrative travel, and that that’s something that you kind of look for. Will you explain for listeners what you mean when you say that?

Rick: Dual-narrative travel. You know, I have an appetite for traveling to places that get me outta my comfort zone. And I’m not any big, you know, hotshot adventurer. I don’t go to war zones or anything like that. But I go to places where generally we’re not “supposed” to go.

And those, when I think back in, are my best travel experiences. You know, back in the old days, going to the Soviet Union, um, going to Iran, going to Palestine, going to Cuba, that’s where it’s at. I mean, to, to get to know your enemies. I say that with quotes, but you know, people are supposed to be our enemies.

It’s really powerful. And you, you realize how ethnocentric our approach to many of the world’s great problems are. There are walls, physical or metaphorical that, um, we need to understand. I can’t think of a good wall. And, uh, a wall keeps people apart. And you know, when I think about the wall between Palestine and Israel, it was built by the Israelis to protect them from violent incursions by “bad guys” in Palestine that were gonna come in and bomb their buses and so on. Um, well, OK. Let’s just say that’s a reasonable investment and a reasonable fear on their part. It’s a complicated issue, but let’s just say that. What is the consequence of that wall?

Well, it’s made it tougher, maybe, for people to cross the border with bad intentions, but I think even greater than that, it has kept the young people on both sides of that wall saddled with their parents’ fears and their parents’ baggage and, and unable to talk to each other. I, I, I learned that when I was traveling, there were, uh, scouting my TV show, um, that I did on the Holy Land.

My Israeli guide, who’s a wonderful guy, Abi, and my Palestinian guide, a wonderful guy named Kamal, it was very, very complicated for them to even find a place where they could park their cars next to each other so I could go from one car to the next. So the whole system is designed so Palestinians and Israelis really can’t connect with each other.

I mean, you might have a gardener coming across the wall in the morning to garden in your fancy house at a cheap price and then he’d go back home. But generally, people never broke bread together. Kids didn’t play together. They all had their own gated communities or refugee camps, and they played with kids whose parents’ baggage impacted them.

So the, the moral to the story is you cannot understand a wall unless you talk to people on both sides of that wall. It’s dual-narrative travel. When you go to Belfast now there’s dual-narrative tours of the wall that separates the Protestant and Catholic communities. And you don’t just take a taxi tour with an angry Catholic or an angry Protestant. You take a taxi tour that has two different drivers and for half of the tour you’re with a Catholic and for half the tour you’re with a Protestant and you have quadruple the learning experience.

You know, that’s a beautiful thing about travel and that’s what I enjoy as a travel teacher is inspiring people to have fun, not spend a lot of extra money, do things efficiently, don’t wait in line needlessly, know how to pack, all that kind of stuff.

But, um, but also travel in a way where you get outta your comfort zone and travel in a way where you broaden your perspective. Travel in a way where you think of culture shock, not as something to avoid, but as a constructive thing. Culture shock to me, I’ve been thinking about this lately, is the growing pains of a broadening perspective. And it’s important, culture shock and it just needs to be curated. So as the tour guide, I get to curate culture shock.

Aislyn: I love that. It also, like, I think it kind of decenters the traveler and the narrative a little bit, right? Like you’re, you’re not the most important thing there, right?

Rick: You know, you just nailed it. You just nailed it. My favorite country is India, and people don’t think of me in India. They think of me in Europe. But you know, for me, Europe is the springboard for world exploration for an American. Go there, and then if you have a good trip, you can go beyond. But, um, my favorite travel experiences are India, because India wallops my ethnocentrism.

I like to say it rearranges all my cultural furniture because even if we’re hip people that feel like we, we have this global perspective, we’re all ethnocentric. We all think we’re the norm, you know, and, uh, people with spoons and forks aren’t the norm. People who sit on something when they go to the bathroom are not the norm. We’re the oddballs. And, uh, we don’t realize that unless we travel and unless we travel to places where there are different norms. And you have to have an appetite for that.

For a lot of people I know as a tour guide, that’s not what they want to hear. You know, it’s not what they want to hear. They, they draw back and they clench their fist and they think, “Are you telling me we’re wrong? That we’re not the center of the world, that the world’s not a pyramid with us on top and everybody else trying to figure it out, that people don’t aspire to be American?”

Aislyn: What do you say to that? How do you respond?

Rick: I say, “The world is not a pyramid with us on top. And I thought it was until, well, until my adulthood.” And then I met a, a, a guy in Afghanistan when I was hitchhiking through Afghanistan. I mean, I’ve got a lot of anecdotes like this, but I always like to say I was at a cafeteria in Kabul, and this guy sat down next to me.

He said, “Are you an American?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, I’m a professor here in Afghanistan and I want you to know that a third of the people on this planet eat, eat with spoons and forks like you. A third of the people eat with chopsticks and a third of the people eat with their fingers like me. And we’re all civilized just the same.”

And I remember, I can remember it like it was yesterday, the, the wording he said, “And we’re all civilized just the same.” And he actually—his mission was to sit down at the tourist cafeteria every day at lunch with some sort of an American backpacker and let him know we’re all civilized just the same.

Aislyn: Absolutely. I mean, you don’t end—talking about, you know, climate change and wastefulness, no plastics, utensils going into the landfill.

Rick: Yeah. Isn’t that amazing? So, this is why I enjoy my work so much because, you know, uh, as a tour guide, I spent 25 years with the mic and I had the bully pulpit, the buses, the doors locked. “I got the mic, you’re gonna listen to me.” And I had, I, I, I learned over years, um, how you can abuse the bully pulpit, but I also learned the value of travel over the years as my travelers were gradually and artfully having their perspectives broadened through this travel experience.

And that’s how I would assess the value of my work is what kind of an impact did I have on my travelers? And, you know, Europe is tame for the, for an experienced traveler. But Europe is, is a challenge for a lot of people. And what we like to joke, where I work—I work with 100 colleagues here in Seattle at Rick Steves Europe—and we joke that our mission is to equip and inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando.

You know, and it’s not, there’s nothing wrong with Orlando or Vegas, but if you’ve been there six or seven times, why don’t you try Portugal? It’s not gonna bite you. You know? And then if you don’t like it, you can scurry back to Disney World, you know?

But, uh, I think there’s one book that outsells my Rick Steves Italy guidebook, and it’s the guidebook to Disney World. There’s a, it’s a huge market and it’s escape, escape travel. It’s La La land. And for a lot of people, they don’t want anything more than that. I, I like a quote from Thomas Jefferson. He said, “Travel makes a person wiser if less happy.”

Aislyn: You mentioned this evolution from tourist to traveler to pilgrim. Do you think it kind of helped solidify your own evolution as a traveler and as a travel teacher?

Rick: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, there’s just, it’s nice to be introspective and thoughtful when you have an experience. And a lot of people, they’re raised not to be introspective. They’re raised never to write a poem. As a tour guide, I used to really stress out my groups by saying, “On the, on the last day of the tour, we’re all gonna share a poem that we’ve written over the next two weeks.”

And everybody had to write a poem. And for some people it was just a limerick, you know? But other people, they wrote very thoughtful poems and, and they astounded themselves at how they could be a thoughtful traveler. Uh, I just loved the thought that, you know, Wordsworth would walk through the, the beautiful lakes of Comfrey and Lake District—the great poet Wordsworth—and he’d be inspired by the birdsong and the, and the blowing clouds and, and, and the ripples on the lakes. And, you know, we need that. It’s good for our soul. Uh, it’s a beautiful thing

Aislyn: And articulating it. Right? Like articulating what it means.

Rick: You got it.

Aislyn: Because I think that can help kind of like make it more concrete within ourselves and allow us to take it home.

Rick: That’s a beautiful thing. And it’s, it’s raising the bar as a tour guide, you know? And, um, I’ve always been thankful for the caliber of people that choose to work with us. And they are guides that embrace this idea. And it, you know, if you’re a tour guide, you’re working really hard, you’re living on the road away from your home, and you’re surrounded by people on vacation all the time and, and you’re working.

And, um, you know, [the work] can just be making a buck or it can be really contributing. And, uh, the guides that I’m really blessed to call work mates and colleagues, they have the same mission as me. They have this great opportunity to take a group of wonderful Americans outta their comfort zone and gently curate their culture shock.

Aislyn: Do you still require or ask them to write a poem at the end of it?

Rick: Well, um, no, but we, we encourage our guides to create an esprit de corps on the bus. Um, a meaningful family atmosphere. And, you know, cuz you can—everybody can just be very, very superficial and hardly know each other’s names. Or we have what we call “reflections periods.”

I love a reflections time where you’ve just been, to the concentration camp Dachau and then you’ve been to the beer hall, and then you’ve gone to this amazing church, Wieskirche, the rococo church in the meadow at the foothills of the Alps. And then you settle into your fancy chalet in Austria and before dinner you spend, uh, an hour just moderating the discussion and the tour guide is now, not the teacher, but he or she is the moderator. And you just encourage people who are comfortable doing this to talk about emotionally what they’ve been going through.

And to be able to orchestrate that is really rewarding. It’s a challenge. And it’s raising the bar for a tour guide, that’s for sure. But most tour companies, you know, they tell their guides, “Just don’t talk about religion, politics, or soccer.” Because those are things that are gonna just upset people. But I just tell my guides, “Hey, if you wanna, if you wanna raise the bar, talk about religion, talk about politics, and talk about football, um, but do it in a respectful way that inspires your Americans to be broader in their thinking.”

You know, you hear about “ugly Americans”—that’s the kind of a term we don’t hear much anymore—but it’s not a bad person, the ugly American on the road. It’s, it’s just that Americans tend to be ethnocentric. The ugly American is an ethnocentric traveler who thinks, “Where’s my ice cubes? Why can’t I have a bottomless cup of coffee? I need fast service. I need the service right now.” They’re just naive. And they’re steep on the learning curve. They’re good people, and they’re, they’re far from home and they’re learning. If you’re buried deep in the middle of our country without a passport and your whole world is shaped by the TV channel you choose to watch, what is your worldview? Probably very ethnocentric. Are you afraid? You’re probably very afraid. Do you want walls or bridges? You probably want walls, you know? Uh, what about people who travel a lot? Um, they’re not so afraid and they want bridges. I love that.

Aislyn: Yeah, yeah. Or, or they know also what to be afraid of, you know? I feel like they’re afraid of not traveling, not expanding your worldview.

Rick: That’s a good point. Yeah. They know what the real risks are. That’s the irony. Yeah. To me, the irony is people who want a wall, they, they want a wall in order to be safer. And I firmly believe that a wall does not make you safer. A wall makes your future less stable.

Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely.

Rick: But that takes a little more of an attention span for a lot of people to think about. You know, it’s—you can’t put it on a bumper sticker.

Aislyn: And the firsthand experience, the time, you know?

Rick: Yeah. Firsthand experience. What a concept. See, that’s, that’s getting back to our conversation about travel. That firsthand experience is more and more important.

Aislyn: Well, going back to climate change a little bit more broadly, you’ve had kind of a front row seat to some of the changes throughout Europe and beyond, and I’m just curious to know what you have witnessed.

Rick: Oh yeah. Well, you know, Aislyn, that’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages would be to make some kind of a TV show or travel essay or something that just showed the silly impacts of climate change on privileged developed world people on their vacations. You know, it’s, it’s not like a new, um, dry land in Guatemala that’s impoverishing formerly well-off farmers. It’s just skiers—you know, there’s no summer skiing anymore in the Alps.

I grew up thinking or being fully aware that it’s so fun to rent some skis when you’re traveling and ride the lift up and ski in the summer. Well, they don’t do that anymore now. So I can just think of the examples around Europe. In Spain, uh, they used to have bullfights where you could buy tickets in the shade or the sun. The cheaper tickets were in the sun, and the more expensive tickets were in the shade. It got so hot that they moved the bullfights later, and now everything’s in the shade.

Aislyn: Interesting.

Rick: I mean that’s just, uh, to accommodate climate change. I’m gonna be flying to Spain next week, and I know there’s canvas shade panels above the roads, the streets, so pedestrians can, uh, actually walk in the street without the sun beating down on them. You know, that’s new. You find, um, flood barriers now built into the little towns all across south England.

Little towns that have been there for centuries that didn’t used to have the problem of the sea washing up their main street. They’ve got a flood barrier there. The Dutch, who are famously frugal, are spending billions of euros moving mud and sand to beef up their dikes in anticipation of a rising sea. Because half of the Netherlands are below sea level. There’s a storm surge barrier just outside of Rotterdam that, um, is, to me it’s like two Eiffel Towers on their side on wheels that can roll shut in the threat of a rising sea. We saw what happened in New Orleans and in New York when you had that storm surge. Well, you know, that can happen again. And every, every city is gonna need storm surge barriers, to survive that. What else [have] you got? There’s not a ski lift in Europe these days that doesn’t have plumbing built in with it. You don’t build a ski lift without plumbing, cuz you gotta make your snow.

Aislyn: Got it.

Rick: And the river boats are having a crisis, uh, that whole industry because the water’s either too high or too low and they can’t get to where they promised their travelers they’re gonna get, so they have to have buses that follow them and half of the itinerary is done by bus on a quote, river cruise.

So it’s, um, it’s disturbing. I guess people acknowledge there is climate change and most people acknowledge that humans are contributing to it, but do we have the ability to pay for something now that will help people 10 or 20 years from now, or do we just wanna bully our way through our lives and have our vacations without dealing with the sustainability aspect of it?

That’s to me why we need government action. I’m a great capitalist, but I know that capitalism needs a referee, and that’s what governments are for. If we’re gonna have capitalism in a couple of generations, we need a government to step in now and enforce expensive sustainability issues because human beings, by their nature, just—they want it now.

Aislyn: Yeah.

Rick: It’s a very unusual person that can say, “I will deny myself that now so people two generations from now can have a little bit of it.”

Aislyn: Yeah, I mean, I hear people, sometimes people who have children or grandchildren, like—I listened to your January presentation, I think the one that you were referencing earlier, where you, instead of flying everyone in and you mentioned your young grandson, Atlas. Congratulations on the name, by the way. That’s an amazing name.

Rick: Yeah. Isn’t it?

Aislyn: Um, and just, you know, wanting to kind of, uh, see him travel, allow the world to be in a place where he can.

Rick: Now, when I give my talks, if I give a talk that’s a political talk or an ethical talk, I finish—I’ve added a shot of beautiful little baby Atlas, Rick Steves’s grandson, and then I show a shot of my daughter, Jackie, just adoring her little beautiful baby. And then I show a shot of a nameless father and infant in, uh, south Asia.

And I, I make the very important case that that father’s love is just as beautiful and important as mine. And that little child is just as deserving and important as mine. And it, it makes all the notions that a traveler takes home, it drives them home in a more strong way, in a more undeniable way. When you have a grandchild in your arms, it should.

Aislyn: Absolutely.

Rick: You know, some people they’ll just want more walls. I mean, if they got a grandchild in their arms, but, uh, I don’t, I don’t think a traveler, a thoughtful traveler, would be inclined to want more walls. They’d want more bridges with a grandchild in their arms.

Aislyn: Yeah. More bridges and more government action.

Rick: Yeah, more refereeing, more sustainability. You know, why can’t we pay? It’s so clear to me. I, I spend a million dollars a year to mitigate the carbon that our travelers take when they fly to Europe to meet our tours. It’s a million dollars. I could have made that profit, but I’m making too much money. I’m stealing from the future. It should be taxed, you know, and then invested smartly. But I’m not gonna just complain about it. I’m just gonna tax it myself and invest it myself. And by the way, what gets done with the investment from our Rick Steve’s Climate Smart initiative in these 10 organizations that work in the developing world, supporting farmers: It is so exciting what gets done. It does, it makes a difference, you know, and, um, it’s my hope that more, um, you know, uh, on our website it’s a quite a complicated essay that we’ve written explaining the whole rationale and the thinking behind the Rick Steves’s Climate Smart initiative.

And right at the top it says, “If you’re a tour operator, steal this program. And do not credit us. Don’t credit us.” I mean, it’s, you know, it’s just—use it, it’s innovative and, you know, I think it’s good business. One thing, one of my mantras during COVID was I was realizing good business is good business.

I like that. You know, cuz you don’t need to compromise your viability as a profit making corporation to be ethical. You know, and if you can build, uh, your business with a clientele that appreciates your ethics, that’s a nice clientele to have.

Aislyn: Absolutely. Yeah, I appreciate that you kind of show your work in that way. You know, you’re showing the kind of impact that these programs are having and putting kind of the personal to the problem, I think can really connect with people more than just the larger like, looming terror of climate change.

Rick: I, I think there’s a hunger for candor and transparency. And in our society there’s a hunger for, yeah, people to talk straight, uh, and respectfully about how together we can, we can be constructive and deal with this problem.

And that’s kind of my—cuz I’m really into marketing. I love to market and just from a, just from a straight marketing point of view, it just seems like people go, “Yeah, thank you for telling me the straight story.”

Aislyn: You referenced this a little bit, but you spent your whole career kind of encouraging people to travel and, uh, does it ever feel like a weight in some of these issues, you know, that kind of sense of responsibility? Or have you made peace with it because of all the things that you’ve said throughout this last hour?

Rick: No, I constantly struggle with it. Or not constantly struggle with it. I mean, I don’t lose sleep about it, but it’s a very important issue. And um, you know, it frustrates me that there’s not some kind of Better Housekeeping seal or something like that. Some government-studied and -blessed kind of ordained, kind of smart way to pay for your carbon. Because, you know, we read all these reports and we think we’ve got it figured out, but there’s, maybe there’s just not a definitive answer. But I wish the government had a very credible way of saying, “If you wanna cover your carbon costs, this is how much it costs and this is what you can do.”

But it needs to be credible. You know, my, my frustration locally with the conventional stuff was we learned about it from brokers. Brokers who sell carbon offsets and they’re businesses, you know. They may say they’re motivated by the environment or altruism, but, you know, they’re just making their commission off what they sell.

And it just was hard to feel it was really credible. But if there was some, you know, really accepted and clear way that we could understand “What is our carbon costs and how can we mitigate it?” that would be really great. And we’re doing our best right now to do that. And then, as I said, there’s two sides to the coin because we need to be empowered to do good by taking home that most beautiful souvenir. And that’s a broader perspective.

Aislyn: Well put. Well, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it and just, uh, I appreciate your sense of responsibility and transparency.

Rick: Well, thank you Aislyn. And I really enjoy an interview where it causes me to try to put the thoughts I’m struggling with into some sort of a smart sort of context. And I actually come out of the interview learning more about what I’m thinking then I went into the interview. So that’s great. So thanks for, um, raising, you know, raising awareness about this important issue.

Aislyn: All hail the mighty Rick. Thank you, Rick, for your time and your thoughts. If you want to learn more about the Climate Smart Commitment, tune in next week, as we chat with Craig Davidson, chief operating officer of Rick Steves Europe. We talked more about the very careful selection process for these nonprofits that they donate to the types of projects that they’re involved in which revolve around farming and education for women and girls. And the questions that they still ask themselves around this whole issue of climate change and travel. It’s a great conversation so be sure you tune in. In the meantime, you can always explore more at ricksteves.com. And subscribe to his podcast, Travel with Rick Steves. In our show notes we’ll also link to our own stories about carbon offset programs, flying less, and other climate change issues. See you next week.