Beaten Paths: The Rick Steves Effect

You’ll see them in Paris cafes clutching their blue Rick Steves guidebooks. They’re wandering the trails of Cinque Terre with their matching ricksteves.com-bought backpacks and huddled over their Rick Steves phrasebooks. These are people so loyal to the Rick Steves brand that they are known in the travel world as Rickniks, and they are growing in numbers every year.

Rick Steves has been producing books about exploring the authentic Europe for more than 30 years. With the mission of broadening Americans’ perspectives through inexpensive travel, he has established himself as one of the most popular brands in the travel media industry, creating guides, producing television and radio series and organizing tours focused on cheap ways to experience Europe as a “temporary local”. By 2011, he had a business worth almost $50 million in revenue.

Steves is a kind of wanderlusting Mister Rogers, promoting travel with an unrelenting optimism. This earnest spirit has hooked an abundant American audience. According to Steves’ publisher, Avalon Travel, ricksteves.com attracts more than 1.2 million unique visitors each month! Most of the people who watch his shows or sign up for his tours are over the age of 50; many of whom have never left the United States before. His fans are not Lonely Planet backpackers in search of cool expat hangouts; nor are they socialites interested in 5-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. Rick Steves targets people who, if not for Rick Steves, would have likely remained apprehensive travelers, not venturing outside the U.S.

His easy-to-follow itineraries, practically advice and light-hearted humor have attracted around 18,000 travelers annually to sign up for his european tour programs. The effect of these numbers is humorously highlighted in a story told by author Timothy Egan in the New York Times in 2008. He writes about dining in Vernazza, in the Italian Cinque Terre, “watching waves of people pour into the tiny village to look for their serendipitous Stevesian encounter while clutching his guidebook. A sudden outburst came from my 7-year-old son: “Rick Steves has got to be stopped!””

This sentiment is shared by many travelers, complaining about the Rick Steves Effect – the paradox in opening Europe’s ”backdoors” to the masses. His guidebooks and shows have turned once-quaint parts of Europe into highly trafficked tourist spots. Most travelers don’t want to rub elbows with other Americans when traveling across the world. But a mention in a Rick Steves guidebook can quickly increase the foot traffic of a sleepy Swiss town or hole-in-the-wall tapas joint. When Steves taped an episode about Paris that highlighted the rue Cler as one of his favorite neighborhoods, the American tourists quickly flocked to and congested the narrow Parisian lane. It’s now half-jokingly referred to as Rue Rick Steves by some of the locals.

Though there are those who wish for the end of the Ricknik revolution, far greater are the numbers of Steves’ supporters. Trip Advisor forums are full of thank you notes to the writer. User BarnumDallas of Rowlett, Texas wrote, “If it were not for [Rick Steves’] show my wife and I would have never traveled to Europe. We have been to France many times now, and plan our own trips based on many, many sources. If it had not been for him I suspect we would have remained timid travelers, never leaving the US.”

Whether these baby boomer backpackers will be the positive representatives Steves hopes them to be, or whether they’ll return home more politically and socially open-minded, is up for debate. But, as Sara Corbett wrote in the New York Times, it’s obvious that Rick Steves takes great pride and delight in the fact that he got these Americans out there travelling at all.

 

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Above: Taken from the audience in Cleveland, Ohio by Colleen on the BSW Journey. Rick was in town to talk about his new book Travel as a Political Act which tells stories and promotes travel, especially for Americans, as an opportunity to learn and better understand the interconnectedness of today’s world, and how exactly the United States fits in to all that.

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