Now, we’re looking to Steves again as we start to imagine our way out of this pandemic. With the vaccine rollout well underway, people are starting to think about when they can safely plan their next trip. But a lot will have changed since we last went abroad. Cultures, countries and economies have been ravaged. America’s role in the world is different. What will travel look like in a post-COVID world? No one is better equipped to prepare us than Rick Steves. He will discuss all of these issues surrounding the future of travel this year at the Crosscut Festival.
Steves will discuss “Foreign Travel in a Post-Pandemic World” at the festival on May 5. Every year, journalists, politicians, authors and newsmakers from our Pacific Northwest community and around the nation come together at the Crosscut Festival to take a hard look at the people, policy and events that shape our lives. Because we can’t gather together in person just yet, this year’s Crosscut Festival will be a virtual, free event, spanning six days, May 3-8, 2021. (Get tickets now.)
Ahead of the Crosscut Festival, Steves took the time to chat with Crosscut about post-pandemic travel and his event at the festival. Here’s what he had to say about staying home, rolling up his sleeves and getting the vaccine, where he wants to travel first and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Over the last year, a lot of people have been curious about the travel guy who couldn’t travel — there were a lot of interviews and people looking to you for words of wisdom. What was that experience like?
Well, it caused me to think more about this whole idea of employing the traveler’s mindset, even when you can’t travel. I love travel because travel broadens your perspective. There’s something fundamental about traveling that can be applicable to somebody who’s not traveling. Can you travel while not leaving home? It’s been really instructive that way over this last year because I have made a point to do what I think a good traveler does: have a positive attitude, get out of their comfort zone, try new things. And that’s made this COVID lockdown much easier to handle for me, even though I can’t travel.
Someday, when the vaccine rollout is complete, we’ll be able to travel again. What do you think European travel will look like as things open back up?
Well, that’s the big question. There’s two issues. How will the pandemic have impacted the business environment that shapes the traveler’s experience? And then, what will the “new normal” be? Will we be all wearing masks, will there be social distancing, will there be different capacity levels? I think we are on a path to normalcy.
I think there might be permanent change in some of our standards of health and hygiene. Like in the Pacific Rim, people have been wearing masks for years. I think you might see a little bit of that in Europe.… We have become experts in the convenience and efficiency of virtual experiences. So, some of that will spill over into travel. And I imagine that people are going to be more likely and willing to download an app and enjoy something with the help of some tool, their tablet or their phone.
I think good travel is being close to people. Social distancing and the Rick Steves style of travel have nothing to do with each other. I go to Paris to have my cheeks kissed. And I go to Rome to pack into the piazzas, buy a gelato and stroll those pedestrian boulevards during the passeggiata time. I go to the pubs in Ireland to clink glasses with people who really believe that strangers are just friends who’ve yet to meet. And all of that dimension is what makes traveling — in Europe in particular, for me — so exciting and rewarding. And I think we’re going to get that back.
The other thing is, what are the casualties of this pandemic for the business environment that we experience when we go to travel anywhere — whether it’s the United States or Europe, or beyond Europe. I really find that what appeals to me about Europe are all of the mom and pop ventures, the entrepreneurial ventures, the little cafes, the restaurants, the trattorias, the guest houses, the small tour companies and the museums. There’s a lot of museums that are not big national museums. But they’re just the passion of somebody who really cares about this or that slice of history, or culture, or art. Will these still be standing? We don’t know.
It’s going to be a tough experience. Big businesses can suffer through a long period with no income. The little businesses, they’re going to be disbanded. How many of them will not survive COVID remains to be seen.… I hope and pray they’ll still be there. Just like I hope and pray the little businesses that make my town here in Edmonds such a great place to live. I hope they’ll still be standing, too. I do not want a future of big giant corporations and chain restaurants.
Where do you want to go first when we can travel again?
I’ve got to balance the demands of my work and where I want to go just personally. So, the first thing I’m going to want to do when I get back is meet with my co-authors and my researchers and sweep through Europe and make sure our guide books are up to date. And our goal is going to be not to research things before things are back to normal, but we have to wait until things are back to normal before we can research the guide books that can help people. That means there’s going to be a short period where there are no post-COVID guide books while people are traveling in a post-COVID time.
I have a lot of TV shows I want to make for public television. We had our permissions, and our crew together, and our flights, and our scripts. We were ready to do two new shows in Poland and two new shows in Iceland and we had to cancel those. So, I am champing at the bit to get back there and do those shows.
On a personal level, it’s reminding me that, “Boy, life is short.” Life is precious. And, if you’re dreaming about doing something, there’s no better time than right now, if you can pull it off. I’ve got a couple of trips just from a personal point of view I’d love to do. I want to hike around Mont Blanc. It’s a 100-mile, 10-day hike through France, Italy and Switzerland. You go from rustic mountain lodge to rustic mountain lodge. A van carries your gear to the next lodge every night and you have a nice, high altitude dinner waiting for you after a long day of hiking. I’m just smiling as I talk about it. It’s something I really want to do. And something else I want to do, which would be just very relaxing is take a little canal barge cruise on one of the canals of Burgundy, where the captain is also a wonderful chef.
The big emotional heartbreak for me last year when we had to cancel our travels was — I had booked one of our Rick Steves bus tours just for my daughter’s fiance and his extended family. And I wanted to get to know my daughter’s in-laws. My son Andy, who is one of our ace guides, would be the tour guide. I was going to take a Rick Steves tour for the first time doing what a tour member is supposed to do, just purely enjoy good friends and great travel.… As soon as we are able to travel, it’s my hope to resurrect that little family dream.
You have adapted to reach audiences with virtual events. What has it been like to connect with people this way?
You know that’s a very timely question. Just this last couple of weeks, I’ve been on kind of a travel lecturer’s high. Because I’ve been giving talks all over the country to thousands of people.... With this technology, I am able to take gigs I wouldn’t take otherwise. I was just talking to a Muslim group in Houston. I was just talking to a foreign study group on the East Coast.... Just so many opportunities to talk with people in different places that don’t involve getting on an airplane and flying across the country. It’s just put on a nice shirt and log on and make sure my dining room is tidy, so that I can be virtually there with Zoom. And I’m loving it. I’ve got a good mic, I’ve got good lighting and I’ve got plenty to talk about.
Speaking of virtual events, you will be joining us at the Crosscut Festival. What do you hope to cover with this conversation?
I hope to give people a sense that getting a grip on this pandemic is a societal challenge. We really need to recognize that we are all in this together. When I got my second vaccination last week, and that needle went into my shoulder, there was so much joy inside of me. It wasn’t a selfish joy, it was a societal joy. I was doing my part to help our society, our species, become inoculated, and have an immunity for this terrible virus. And I just can’t understand how some people could so selfishly not help us all get to herd immunity. Everybody’s free to have their hang-ups and their taboos and their funny ideas. That’s just fine. But you’re not free to hold society back when something very important has to be done. And now is not a time to be digging in your heels against something that is just common sense for the good of society. We all need to get our shots. Because this boat can’t sail until we’re all on board.
I’d like to share some of the thoughts I’ve had as a traveler who’s been homebound for the last year. It’s been the first year in my life since I was a kid where I haven’t been traveling. I normally spend 100 days a year in Europe. I’ve had this desire not only to travel, but to enthuse about travel. When I’m not traveling, I’m traveling around the country here, enthusing about travel, sharing the lessons I’ve learned from travel and why it’s important. I love to do that in person. And, if I can’t do that in person, I love to do it virtually. So when we get together with this event that will be on my agenda. And then, it’s really nice to have that connection and answer questions for people. I look forward to that.