Stepping Out of the Travel Business

Lockdown Piazza del Popolo

Living out the pandemic in Rome has given me time to reflect and re-evaluate my weekly routine. Before automatically reintroducing patterns from BC (before covid), I stopped to ask myself if I really missed them. When the answer was no, I made some changes.

One activity I’ve decided to drop almost entirely: the walking tours that kept me busy and provided some economic perks over the years. At least for a while.

The truth is that I always loved doing these walks. I loved preparing them, meeting interesting people, visiting amazing places, and that glow at the end of the day after saying goodbye. Some extra money to pay the bills, new friends, new memories, and most importantly a renewed love of Rome which comes from seeing it through newcomers’ eyes. But there is a limit to my ability to do this and stay fresh.

I put a lot of time and energy into customized programs (many which were cancelled during covid and never actually carried out). With my sister Jenny I built a new company with a website I love (so much that rather than removing content I simply added the word “discontinued” to the Italian programs).

My Alumni database has grown richer and the boundaries between clients and friends have grown blurred.

I was fully booked in the Fall of 2019. Rome had reached a frenzy of mass tourism–never before had the “sights” been “seen” by so many travellers. I began to share my nostalgia for the old days of walking casually into the Pantheon, familiar to friends already bitter about times gone by. I wrote a piece on over-tourism in which I advocated smarter and slower travel, trips that focused longer on one place and took longer to plan.

Then in early 2020 this was all interrupted. Programs were cancelled. I watched and documented through photos and video as Rome was drained first of tourists and then, through draconian lockdown laws, of almost everyone.

Armed with paperwork to avoid fines I occasionally ventured through the silent streets down to my studio in the historic center as if in a post-apocalyptic film. The Pantheon stayed shut for months. All tours were cancelled, of course.

As I stayed home reading and writing, teaching online, or filling a sketchbook in my Monteverde neighborhood, I realized I didn’t miss the tours. I didn’t miss the stress of scheduling and preparation, the fear of not knowing enough for smart, exacting clients, the risk of poor health, bad weather, or strikes thwarting carefully made plans. I felt kind of good about the empty city, as if it deserved a break from the buses and footsteps of the masses, as if it had earned the right to lay fallow for a while.

I felt kind of good about the empty city, as if it deserved a break from the buses and footsteps of the masses, as if it had earned the right to lay fallow for a while.

Now in the early summer of 2022, although the pandemic is still a reality, that period of tranquility is over and tourism has returned. I’m sorry to say it hasn’t returned smarter or slower than before. Nothing really seems to have changed. Platforms are flourishing that funnel tourists into tours and sights, that list, rate and resell cultural heritage like livestock in meat factories.

Young travellers liberated after a significant chunk of life in lockdown are forgoing research and frantically clicking their way into flash trips to bucket list destinations. I recently witnessed what passes for travel planning on a bus headed to Termini, watching a couple of young American students on their phones as they headed to catch the airport shuttle for I know not where. “It says this is the best pizza-making tour” “Let’s do it”. “It says this pub crawl’s a good deal.” “Sign us up.” What is this oracle “it”?

I so much wish that the two year deprivation had led to a greater appreciation of place. Two years spent reading up about a destination, watching films set in its historic locations, studying it in street view, dreaming about it, so as to one day land there and live it in all its glory. I so so so want my students to prove me wrong, to show me that they didn’t spend lockdown watching the Kardashians. Show me that you can engage in place in ways my generation found impossible. Please please show me that having infinite information and magical communication tools gives you the super-powers to connect with your destinations.

I got together with my friend Rick Steves a few months ago over dinner and discussed the travel industry and where it seems to be going. Rick has great faith in the power of travel to broaden people’s minds and, of course, he is right. But he is still fully invested in travel. I find it easier to observe the industry now that I am retiring from it.

There is great injustice embodied in travel today; some people move so much they don’t have time to take it in while others struggle to make ends meet where they live. I suppose this isn’t new except that now everyone can see what they are missing. I wonder, do those deprived of travel only see other places as unreachable destinations for the privileged? I wonder if smart, slow travel is still a possibility.

My retirement from the travel business won’t be total. I’ll probably make exceptions for old friends, really nice folks, super rich people, and movie stars (especially if they all of the above). I’ll keep exploring my adopted country (Europe) and keep sketching and blogging about it. Maybe some day I’ll dust off those covid-cancelled programs and give them another shot.

For now, having taken on a job as director for an educational organization in Rome I am still deeply engaged in planning programs, courses, workshops and the like. In this role, I’m open to consulting on cultural projects and partnerships, especially when they relate to my interest in sustainable cities.

I may finally have time to follow through on ideas to channel my travel interests into other media such as writing, videos, or apps. As for walking tours, I’m happy to recommend friends who still have the passion and patience to guide visitors through the post-pandemic pandemonium that is Rome.