With a smile on his face, Rick Steves has been telling people where to go since 1976. Specifically, where to go in Europe. He has spent a third of his adult life traveling in Europe, living out of a carry-on suitcase. Each year, he can’t wait to go back.
The author of more than 50 best-selling guidebooks, Steves hosts the long-running public television show “Rick Steves’ Europe,” anchors the weekly public radio show “Travel With Rick Steves,” writes a weekly travel column and a blog, and has at least four podcasts going. In his copious spare time, he has produced with his crew a series of one-hour specials on topics as diverse as “Luther and the Reformation” (Steves is a Lutheran), “The Story of Fascism in Europe” and the latest, “Hunger and Hope: Lessons from Ethiopia and Guatemala,” which aired on Twin Cities PBS (TPT) on Feb. 23 and is now online. Steves describes “Hunger and Hope” as “five minutes of desperation and 55 minutes of hope.”
On Sunday afternoon, March 8, Steves will present his popular Travel Skills Class in the Ordway Concert Hall. We spoke with him shortly before coronavirus became the daily front-page headline. He has a FAQ page about coronavirus, revised often, on his travel website. Rick Steves’ Europe Italy tours scheduled to begin March 1 have been canceled following the CDC’s Feb. 28 recommendation to avoid nonessential travel to Italy.
Steves himself is booked on a flight to Istanbul on April 12. “If things change between now and then,” he wrote on his blog, “I’ll do the responsible thing. But for now, Easter Sunday is, for me, wheels-up.”
MinnPost: What are some ways travel has changed in the past 10 years?
Rick Steves: Crowds have become a serious issue. There are more people traveling, and everybody wants to go to the same places. Human beings are herd kind of creatures, and if there’s a crowdsourcing service that says the best restaurant in Paris is a Tex-Mex restaurant, everyone’s going to the Tex-Mex restaurant. Makes no sense to me.
And there’s the Instagram craze. People are standing on the same stump or the same pier or the same bridge to get the same selfie. I was just in Zermatt in Switzerland, and the Instagram people are stopping traffic every morning by standing in the same spot to get a selfie in front of the Matterhorn. Most of them don’t even know the name of the mountain. The town is building a little theater for the Instagram people to stand in so the cars can get by. This is insanity.
Another big thing is the emerging economies. There’s a hundred million people in India and a hundred million people in China that have enough money to go to Europe, and they don’t have a very sophisticated understanding of Europe any more than I have a very sophisticated understanding of what there is to see in China. And just like I’ll go to the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal, they’ll all go to the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower and the Palace of Versailles, and they’ll all want to see the Sistine Chapel. Well, that’s great, but put on your shoulder pads and get ready to scuffle, because it’s gonna be crowded.
Airbnb is having a huge impact. It’s a great economy and convenience for travelers, but it ravages neighborhoods because it drives up the rent so the local people have to move out to the more boring modern suburbs and the tourists get the cute zone. And what made the cute zone cute originally was because local people lived there. They made the market vibrant and they had the old timers sitting there having their coffee and playing backgammon. And now the market sells slushies and fruit on skewers for tourists, and there’s no real neighborhood. The shops have morphed into shops that cater to tourists. So you’ve got a famous neighborhood with old buildings but you don’t have locals and you don’t have local vibrancy in the economy. You can attribute that to the impact of Airbnb.
MP: What advice are you giving travelers that’s new this year?
RS: I’m really into second cities. Everybody goes to Paris; you could consider Marseilles and Lyon. Everybody goes to Berlin; you could consider Hamburg. Everybody goes to Edinburgh; you could consider Glasgow. Everybody goes to Dublin; you could consider Belfast.
Second cities really are vibrant. That’s where you find the up-and-coming little restaurants, the creative artisans, the fun, edgy street art, the old once industrial wasteland harbors that are becoming people friendly and lively. Second cities really are quite exciting.
MP: There’s no second city for Venice.
RS: There is, actually. Padova is Venice’s little sister, and it’s half an hour by train from Venice. I love Padova. It doesn’t have the charming canals, but it’s got an amazing market, an amazing cathedral filled with pilgrims, and a great university. It’s where Galileo taught. Students are graduating all year long, so they have these crazy traditions and roasts and funny stuff in the streets. It’s got the Scrovegni Chapel, with some of the greatest Gothic art in Europe, done by Giotto. And it has no tourist crowds at all.
MP: Your books and shows never include anything ordinary people can’t do. Have you ever secretly wanted to see the room, the castle or the collection that’s not open to the public?
RS: You know, I never have. I get that offered a lot of times and I usually say it’s a waste of my time because I’m here as the hired hand of my travelers, and if they can’t do it I don’t want to cloud my judgment by having seen it. I’m really fanatic about that. We’ve made 150 TV shows in Europe, and I would never film anything that we can do but you can’t, even though a lot of shows specialize in that.
My mission is to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando. It’s more important than ever that America – which is so frightened right now, and so ethnocentric – that we get out there and get to know the other 96 percent of humanity. I think if everybody traveled before they voted, this world would be a much nicer place.
MP: Last year, you announced that your company would donate $1 million a year to fight climate change. Tell us more about that.
RS: Our million dollars is our annual self-imposed carbon tax. I take 30,000 people to Europe every year on my tours. We do about 1,000 bus tours around Europe with 40 different itineraries. It’s how we make most of our money, and it’s the biggest part of our business. I employ 100 people here in my office in Seattle, and we have 100 tour guides in Europe. And I make too much money because nobody’s taxing me for the carbon that we produce. I should have to pay for that as an ethical businessperson.
So what I’ve decided to do is pay for my carbon. When you fly to Europe and back, you create a lot of carbon. That produces about as much carbon as you or I create when we drive our car for six months. You can solve that problem by not traveling anywhere and just watching my TV shows, but I think that’s a lousy solution. We should still travel. It’s a beautiful thing and we don’t need to be monks. We just have to mitigate what we do.
If you invest $30 smartly in climate-smart initiatives to help fight climate change, you create as much good as you create bad when you fly to Europe and back. [Note: $30 is the recommended carbon offset for a round-trip economy class ticket from the United States to Europe.] I figured, we take 30,000 people. That times $30 is $900,000. Round it up to a nice million dollars. So I give $100,000 each year to 10 different organizations that produce enough good to mitigate the carbon we create.
The conventional thing is to invest in carbon offsets. I looked into that, but it didn’t turn me on. What I want to do is help farmers in the developing world. Half of humanity is farmers living on $5 or less a day on tiny family-owned farms in the developing world. These people are contributing to climate change, just like us in the rich world. And I don’t fault them. They’re just trying to feed their kids and survive the winter. But if we help them, they can do their farming more efficiently, more sustainably and contribute less to climate change. So we’re empowering organizations to help farmers in the developing world farm in a way where they contribute less to climate change.
MP: You’ve spent part of each year in Europe for decades. Don’t you ever get tired of traveling?
RS: I’ve just finalized my travel plans for this coming season, and I’m really excited about what’s coming up. I’m lucky I found my niche.
“Rick Steves’ Travel Skills Class” will take place Sunday, March 8, at 4 p.m. in the Ordway Concert Hall. FMI and tickets ($32-62, less for TPT members). Proceeds support Twin Cities PBS. From 7-10 p.m. that evening, Steves will appear live on TPT during the pledge drive.