Rick Steves Restarts Tours But Isn’t ‘Promoting Travel’

February 15, 2022 by Kate Michael
Rick Steves Restarts Tours But Isn’t ‘Promoting Travel’
Rick Steves with tourists in Italy. (Photo by Marlene Tebbe via Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Over the last two years, Rick Steves, a leading American authority on European travel, has been largely grounded and he admits the situation has been frustrating. But on the same day that Steves restarted his company’s European tours, he told a Washington audience, “I’m not promoting travel during the pandemic. It’s up to everyone to decide for themselves.”

Steves heads a veritable travel empire, from guidebooks and TV programs to tour operations all over the European continent. After what he described as his best year ever in 2019, in which his guides took some 30,000 Americans on over 1,200 tours, the pandemic forced a complete cancellation of his essentially sold out 2020 operations — not to mention the need to update all of his guidebooks to reflect those venues that couldn’t survive with diminished patronage.

“I’ve had my wings clipped,” he told over 1,000 viewers of a virtual meeting organized by WETA, the flagship public media station in the national capital area. But even as he continues to pay his staff, Steves insists he can’t stress about it, and travelers shouldn’t either.

“You can get all the experts together at a table and nobody knows what it will be like in six months… The future of travel is like the past of travel,” Steves said, reminding that just as 9/11 and other global concerns changed travel, the pandemic will also require travelers to set their own risk tolerance and make adjustments to logistics and expectations. 

“It’s a new world. You’ve got to be vaccinated. You’ve got to follow local protocols. There are red-tape hurdles that you just have to embrace,” he said.

But while he tells the overly cautious traveler not to overthink it — “If you’re not going to be comfortable, just relax and go next year” — he is actually optimistic that the pandemic could redirect tourism back to what Steves considers the essence of travel. That is, getting off the beaten path, making new friends, and trying new things. 

“We want little hole-in-the-wall places with small menus handwritten in one language — the one targeting locals,” he said. “We need to bring to our travels an understanding to embrace the world.”

Without a reset like this, the lack of cultural connections coupled with increased fear in society may be what concerns Steves most about the aftereffects of the pandemic. 

“People used to say ‘Bon Voyage,’ now they say ‘Have a safe trip.’ Powerful forces can take advantage of our fear. If you think it’s going to make our world safer by hunkering down and building walls, you’re wrong,” he said.

“Travel makes the world a better place.”

So maybe you can’t kiss the toe of St. Peter’s statue anymore, you have to wear a mask in your Louvre selfies and you definitely need to carry your proof of vaccination with you wherever you go in Europe. But if you’re calm, flexible, and willing to follow what could be ever-changing rules, Steves and his guides are ready again to take you to some great sites, available for a limited time without huge crowds until travel surges again. 

If not, there are always re-aired episodes from the Rick Steves’ Europe series to engage wanderlust safely from your sofa. And for something completely new Steves’ new special, Rick Steves: Why We Travel, will air on WETA PBS on Tuesday, Mar. 1 at 8 p.m.

Kate can be reached at [email protected]

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