Travel has changed considerably since European travel expert Rick Steves published his first guide “Europe Through the Back Door” in 1979. In the time it took Steves to write 50 guidebooks, host 10 seasons of “Rick Steves’ Europe” on TV, start a public radio show, release a mobile app for audio tours and grow a company that guides 30,000 people through Europe each year, he’s adapted to innumerable changes to the industry.
Now Steves is adjusting to the next major development in travel: the coronavirus pandemic.
From his home in Edmonds, Wash. (where he’s spending his first summer in 30 years, as he’d normally be in Europe for the season), Steves recently discussed the future of travel with The Washington Post.
(This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: How do you think your business will change? Between writing the guidebooks and your tour program that brings so many people to Europe annually, what do you think is going to happen next?
Steves: Oh, nobody knows what’s going to happen next.
I’m not going to morph into something else. I’m not going to start doing gourmet river rafting tours in Idaho. If there’s no European travel, we’re not going to be taking tours around Europe, and there’s not going to be guidebooks for Europe. I do Europe and there’s a certain “Rick Steves” kind of Europe, and it’s not social distancing.
I don’t want to take people to Amsterdam and have them eat in little bubbles. You go to an Irish pub to sit next to a stranger and drink beer. You go to France to have your cheeks kissed. You go to Italy to do the passeggiando, you know, when everybody’s out strolling together and licking their ice cream cones.
I think that’s going to come back, but it’s going to be a while. For me personally, the future of people staying six feet apart and wearing masks is not my idea of travel.
Q: Do you think that travel will return to how it looked before the pandemic? Or what do you think potential changes could be?
Steves: I’m all about accessibility. I like Europe to be accessible. For things to be accessible, it has to be a really quality experience and it’s got to be affordable.
The only way somebody can have a quality experience is to pack the house. You’ve got to pack the theater. You’ve got to pack the bus. You’ve got to pack the airplane. You got to pack the hotel because then you can generate enough revenue to provide a service that’s top notch. If you have to have every other seat filled, you’ve got half the revenue. So the little mom-and-pop restaurants that I love to feature, if they can only have 50% capacity, they can’t pay their rent. And that’s what scares me.
If the airlines can only put half as many people on the plane, it’s going to cost us all double. Then travel becomes an activity just for wealthy people. And I’ve always wanted travel to be affordable and accessible to people who just, you know, are reasonably employed but not necessarily wealthy.
Q: Yes, I think that is unfortunately the reality of it. In the time that you’ve been at home, what are some of the things that you’ve missed most about travel?
Steves: I’m such a fortunate person that I’ve found my niche in life, and that is sharing my love of Europe. As I’m home right now, we would have had 100 buses with 100 wonderful guides and 25 Americans on each of those buses having the time of their lives. We’ve got zero buses in Europe right now and the guides are without work. And all those travel dreams of all of our tour members are put on hold.
I just can’t stop thinking of all the dreams and all the creative adventures that have been put on hold or are upended by this. Whether it’s people’s graduations or weddings or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to do their thing. It’s kind of heartbreaking. I hope there is a silver lining to it, but everywhere you look there’s dreams that have to be put on hold.
It’s definitely a devastating time. And what you do brings so many people lifetime memories that they’ll cherish forever. Hopefully they can get back to that.
This virus can put our dreams on hold. It can delay our dreams, but it can’t crush our dreams.
I’m trying to be thankful for what we’ve got right here. I mean, you can have a traveler’s spirit and not leave your hometown. And that’s the fun thing, is just finding ways to embrace life just like if I was on the road. You can do that in wonderful ways.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when we can travel again? If you could plan to go somewhere first, where would you go?
Steves: The biggest heartbreak for me was my daughter is getting married and I’m excited to get to know all of her fiance’s relatives. My son was going to be the guide, it was going to be a 20-day tour of the best of Europe, and I was going to be on vacation. But that’s been put on hold now.
As soon as the coast is clear, we’ve all vowed that we’re going to take that trip together and get to know each other and celebrate all the cultural wonders of Europe. That’s something I’m looking forward to. We just have to be patient and I hope we learn something out of this.
Q: You have said in your TED Talk that travel wipes out ethnocentricity. Why do you think that is going to be maybe even more important after the pandemic?
Steves: Travel is the best way to get to know your neighbor. If a community is going to function, you need to know and respect your neighbors, need to trust your neighbors. You need to collaborate and work together. That’s not just a community thing. Community is global now. That’s a scary thought for a lot of people, especially people who don’t travel, who are afraid of people who are different.
When you travel, you celebrate diversity. When you travel, you’re not afraid.
The most fearful people in our country are the people buried deep in the middle of it who have no passports. I’ve thought a lot about it lately, and fear is for people who don’t get out very much.
The flip side of fear is understanding, and we gain understanding when we travel. It’s pretty straightforward to me. And I just think that if everybody traveled, we would be a country that better understood certain realities that are confronting us. If everybody traveled, we would be able to celebrate diversity instead of being afraid of it.
Q: What would be your advice to travelers who are maybe struggling to stay at home right now, or feeling low because of dreams put on hold?
Steves: Take this opportunity to hone your ability to appreciate different cultures. Get kids into art. Read something about Islam. Read something about the Renaissance. Watch a TV series about nature. There are ways that we can sort of vicariously travel through wonderful information available that you can watch or read. The cool thing about that is it’s not just entertaining now. It really gets you tuned in to better appreciating the travel spirit, and the actual travel experiences that await you when you’re ready to travel again.
2020 is the 1940 of our lives. What if you were young and filled with aspirations and dreams in 1940 and suddenly everything’s on hold for four, five years? Well, what happened after that? People just tore out of their cages and ended up having fulfilling and productive lives that they intended to have. I don’t think we’re going to be locked down that long, but it’s a setback.
We need to be thankful for what we’ve got. We’ve got to be aware that the suffering we’re in, this crisis, that a lot of people were in crisis before. Now, it’s crisis upon crisis there.
It’s important for us to pause, to reflect on how richly blessed we are to live here. To reflect on the importance of us working together. And the only way that I see us working together as a community is through good governance. And patience.
And for people like me, workaholics with a tendency to be super productive, not being productive is a blessing to dust off old passions. I’m learning how to cook, walking the dog. I dusted off my trumpet and now I play for my community from my garden as the sun goes down every night.
We have these opportunities to focus our travel spirit more inwardly and more into our immediate neighborhood. And that might be a good exercise.