The man who built a business empire encouraging Americans to visit Europe is embracing a new concept: Stay at home. The continent remains on his mind, though, especially while recording the audio version of his recently released book, filled with favorite travel moments, “For the Love of Europe.” Rick Steves — guidebook author, television personality and small-group tour entrepreneur — is bullish on the future, even if he can’t predict exactly when he will travel again. This conversation has been edited.
Q: What does it feel like to stay at home?
A: It is reminding me that life has many dimensions. I am trying to employ my traveler’s curiosity, wanderlust, open mind and positive energy here at home. I am enjoying this sabbatical. Yesterday I went kayaking; I had never done that before. There are all sorts of things that remind me that, oh, there are a lot of things to get excited about in life and travel is one of those things.
I’m interested in being patient about this pandemic. We have to recognize that this pandemic is much more important than my travel dreams and my particular bottom line as a businessman. This is a crisis that is hitting everybody: rich and poor, north and south, people with passports and people with no passports. We need to come together as a society, embrace science, be patient, care about each other and look out for people who are getting hit the hardest by this so we can come out of it.
Travel will spring back, and Europe will be more welcoming than ever. Right now, we have a little break. We need to be patient. We’ve been at it for just six months. This is difficult. It may take a couple of years, but we’ll get through it.
Q: What’s your threshold for traveling again?
A: The Rick Steves style of travel is getting your cheeks kissed in Paris and crowding onto the piazza in Rome and clinking mugs of Guinness in a pub in Ireland, a place where strangers are just friends you have yet to meet. I am not interested in traveling and having my dinner in a bubble and keeping my distance from everybody. It’s a good time right now to enjoy our travel memories and to plan for and dream for future travels, but I am not going to be the first one out of the gate.
Q: Are you waiting for a vaccine?
A: I am waiting for an age when people can travel across borders with no stress. I am waiting for a time when my country is welcome in other countries. I don’t want to go into a country that has done a good job of handling the virus and threaten that because I come from a country that is not doing as well in that regard. My fear is that we will have to wait for a vaccine, but there are other ways conceivably that we could be comfortable traveling.
We will come out of this incrementally. People are traveling locally. In France, it will be the French people going to the French Riviera. In Italy, it will be the Romans going to the hill towns of Tuscany. And then adventurous individuals will get out there. One of my employees has a boyfriend in Spain, and she couldn’t fly to Spain to see him, so they both flew to Istanbul and they had a wonderful vacation together in Turkey. There will be those kinds of examples of individuals traveling. And then, after that, it will be organized tourism, bus tours and so on. I do not want to get my tour program all up and running and have something happen where we all have to go home early. It is too much emotional turmoil. It is too much inefficiency. It is too much cost. We need to establish mastery of this thing before we start pushing the limits.
Q: Are places using this downtime to set limits on the numbers of tourists or that sort of thing?
A: Tourism is gone, the thriving economy is gone, but the families and the seniors are retaking their piazzas. It is easy to complain about tourist crowds, but do you want to give up the tourist crowds at the loss of all that revenue? Tourism is what butters the bread in many places in Europe. I am impressed by the positive spirit and the resilience of Europe. My friends in Rome are going to the Piazza Navona with their kids and they are enjoying it as it was designed to be. They would steer clear of that in the old days because it was the domain of the tourists.
Q: How can we find authentic experiences in Europe in the post-pandemic world?
A: I would say there will be no difference in what marks a good trip. Some people just want to see cultural clichés on stage. Some people just have a bucket list. To me, a good traveler becomes a temporary local, connects with the people, gets out of their comfort zone and comes home with the most beautiful souvenir: a broader perspective. When we get back to travel again, it will take a while for it to get up to the massive scale or popularity of the last years, so I don’t think you’ll have the crowd problems that have plagued some of the most popular places recently: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, these kinds of places. The character of the towns was being trampled to the point that the character was going away and people weren’t even experiencing what they were supposed to experience.
The Ramblas in Barcelona is one example. Everybody loves the Ramblas. Well, the Ramblas is lovable because of what it used to be. It used to be the grand boulevard of a wonderful neighborhood. Now it is a grand boulevard but the people who made that neighborhood have been pushed away by the tourist industry. Today people go to the Ramblas and they have a good time but they are not experiencing the real Ramblas. When we do go back to Europe, we will find a little less of that Ramblas problem because communities will have retaken their piazzas, marketplaces and boulevards.
Q: Will travel be different in the future?
A: Oh, I think it will probably be different in the way that airports were different after terrorism. If you compare to the past, you say, ‘Oh, it’s not the same.’ But you don’t compare to the past, you just look ahead. I think the bar for hygiene, masks and social distancing will be higher. That is not a bad thing in itself.
Q: Will we be able to travel to Europe by 2021?
A: Travel will be coming back in 2021, but it will be fragile. Individual tourism will be open long before tour organizers like me will be comfortable putting their tour bus program back in action. If you are an individual, you will be able to fly to Europe in 2021.
Q: Your new book devotes 83 pages to Italy, double any other place. Do you have a soft spot for Italy?
A: Everybody asks what’s your favorite country. I’m thankful that I like wherever I go. But if I had to say what’s my favorite country, you could say, well, where have you written the most about, where do you have the most friends, where have you made the most TV shows? I think I’ve made two TV shows on Norway, four on Ireland, eight on Spain and 18 on Italy.
My very favorite country is India, and the closest thing to India in Europe is Italy. Italy is what rearranges your cultural furniture in a beautiful way. Italy is bella chaos, beautiful chaos. Italy is life in the streets. Italy is the sweetness of doing nothing, la dolce far niente. Italy is amazing history. Italy is it.
Italy is also a challenging country in a lot of ways. Some people just don’t like it. If someone tells me ‘Oh, Italy is nothing but traffic jams and temper tantrums and body odors and stray hairs,’ I say well, you’d probably enjoy Denmark. To me, the mark of a good traveler is one who enjoys Italy. And I also say if you like Italy as far south as Rome, go farther south because it gets better. But if Italy is getting on your nerves by the time you get to Rome, don’t go farther south, it gets worse. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. Naples to me is the ultimate city. I love Naples.
Q: What’s your ideal next trip to Europe?
A: The big heartache for me this year is that I booked our flagship tour, an entire bus, for my daughter, her fiancé, and her fiancé’s family. I thought what a great opportunity for this new extended family of ours to be able to go to Europe. My son Andy was going to be the guide and I was going to actually be on vacation — totally on vacation on a Rick Steves tour. Ha! I’ve never done that before. That’s what I’m going to do again.
On the business end of it, I have 50 guidebooks covering all of Europe. I need to schedule a pedal-to-the-metal, maxxed-out tour and sort everything out to get my books in beautiful shape for the post-COVID age. Because nobody knows how this is going to hurt the little businesses. That’s what I just love about Europe — all the little mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses. I am going to gather my lead researchers. We’re going to go to Europe, sweep through and assess the damage, and make the guidebooks accurate.
In a few years, we’ll look back on this and tell our children, ‘Ah, yes, back in 2020,’ you know. But we will power through this. That’s what I need to do: go back to Europe.