Of all the industries that took a hit in 2020, international travel endured one of the most abrupt and devastating blows; there's no takeout option or Zoom yoga class version of a bus tour of Pompeii. For Rick Steves, who oversees a travel empire in Edmonds built on guidebooks, tv shows, and guided tours of Europe for more than 30,000 travelers per year, the pandemic meant a total shutdown.
But Steves didn't panic, even as he refunded deposits to travelers he could no longer lead around the Eiffel Tower or Cinque Terre. For a year he roamed his back porch, patiently waiting for travel to begin again, for real. And now, he says, it's time—to make plans, if not whip out the passport immediately.
"[Last year] was heartbreaking from a business point of view, but much more heartbreaking for all those travel dreams, all that planning and all that togetherness and excitement being derailed," says Steves. Refunding 24,000 deposits was traumatic for everyone involved, so even as vaccines have proliferated and the end of the pandemic looks, finally, achievable, his company hasn't begun selling new trips right away.
Fall travel dates are set, with prices laid out on the Rick Steves' Europe website: a seven-day Paris tour for Thanksgiving, or ten days in Italy moving from Venice to Rome. But wannabe travelers are merely signing up on waiting lists (or "wish lists," as Steves calls them), not laying down cash; those fall trips may not happen. So far there are almost 18,000 people who've expressed interest.
By the end of May, Steves thinks he'll be actually selling spots for 2022 departures. He's even planning ones earlier than usual, in February and March of next year. "We're just all so excited to get back," he says. He will only run the 2021 trips if travel restrictions lift quickly, but he says "by spring of 2022, I think the travel experience is going to be essentially the same." (However, on a recent blog post Steves admitted that some masking, social distancing, and other restrictions could remain.)
Europe, of course, won't be exactly the same. Steves worries about the mom-and-pop establishments he likes to include on Rick Steves' Europe tours, the little eight-table restaurants and small guest houses. "It's going to be sad to go back to Europe and not see a lot of our favorite little companies," he muses, knowing many couldn't weather a year off as he could. He'd like to require vaccinations for all customers, but expects to merely follow whatever guidelines Europe institutes for foreigners. Formal rules have yet to be solidified, but on Wednesday the European Union endorsed a plan to let vaccinated visitors return.
Steves was blasé about staying home for a year, even though it was his longest break from traveling since boyhood. Even as his Rick Steves' Europe show airs reruns on the local PBS station, he has been creating new virtual travel classes that include advice, history, and anecdotes. A new two-hour wrap-up special, "Rick Steves Europe Awaits," airs June 7.
He's eager to get on the road again just like everyone else, but doesn't foresee that Americans will retake to the globe with a particularly new attitude. The privileged bubbles of Europe and the U.S. will be the first to exchange tourists, he thinks, and pent-up demand will mean a crush of them; we've seen smaller versions of that after natural disasters like earthquakes.
But after 40 years in the industry, Steves is still optimistic at how pleasure travel can lead to a better understanding of how dependent we are on each other. Future crises will be solved by "good governance and embracing science and nations working together," he says. "When we travel, we gain a better appreciation of each other and empathy for each other"—and maybe how meaningless borders can be. "Solutions to problems like [the pandemic] cannot be win-lose. It's got to be win-win."
This article has been corrected to remove a line indicating Rick Steves didn't lay off any employees during the pandemic.