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Award-winning journalist shares travel experience

By Jim Gordon and Leeta Liepins

Published 12:11 PDT, Fri July 5, 2024

Steve Burgess is a Vancouver-based writer and a broadcaster, whose honours include two Canadian national magazine awards. He’s also a contributing editor for the Tyee. He is an award-winning documentary director and the author of a brand-new book called Reservations, the Pleasures and the Perils of Travel.

OCT: Congratulations on the new book and ironically, we read it while travelling this past week. It’s a great collection of your thoughts and your experiences. Please let our readers have a little sample of what they can expect in this book because you have really encapsulated about 25 years’ worth of travel and stories.

SB: The funny thing is, that I dedicated the book to David Beers, who is the founder of the Tyee. To understand how the book turned out, you have to also understand the fights that Dave and I had when I told him I wanted to write a travel book. I just thought that I’m going to tell stories, but Dave was saying that I had to make it more than that. Of course, I resisted and kindly kicked back but what he was saying is I have got to add a journalistic element. He told me I had to delve into bigger issues. So, I reluctantly took his advice and what the book turned out to be is a combination of stories from my travels but all of the stories jump off into discussions of the issues that face the travel and tourism industry right now.

OCT: One of the things we found in your book is this discussion on sustainability and the balance between the environment and people wanting to see everything. It’s not as easy to fix as people seem to think, is it?

SB: The thing is, if someone’s going to Rome, you can’t tell them don’t go to the Colosseum because it’s too crowded. We know that you have to go to the Colosseum, but the thing is I think if you can get beyond that you’re going to have a richer experience. Sure, go to the Colosseum and the fountains then wander the streets and find the small little joys and the hidden treasures because there’s so many of them in Rome. 

When you think about Japan, something like 98 per cent of the tourists go on what’s called the Golden Route which is Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and also Mount Fuji. There are a lot of other places to see in northern Japan that are begging for tourists and where the people appreciate your business. I went to a little town called Miyama where they have these beautiful, thatched cottages and it’s so quiet. When you think of Tokyo, you think of hyper urban. This place is as quiet as a library and it’s beautiful plus they need the tourism to keep the town growing. So, there are places like that you can find.

OCT: It’s interesting too because I was telling you that only 48 hours ago, I was in one of my favourite towns in Mexico and I hadn’t been there in five years and it was overwhelming with an explosion of people. I could see other towns on their way to becoming that as well just like you talk about. One thing I love in your book is why you travel. You talk about that little place in Japan, where they’ve got a giant statue of Buddha thinking this would draw tourism and it didn’t, so it’s not always—build it and they will come.

SB: Not only that and I love this about this little town, it was a surreal experience for me because I was just on a little putt-putt train going to a town called Ferano and I looked over and saw this thing that was like a gleaming vision of a giant Buddhist Statue of Liberty in the middle of nowhere and then the train moved on. I found out later that there was a number of them that were built throughout Japan, and it turned out to be a flop.

The other thing I found out about this town was their previous attempt to draw tourists was something called Canadian World. So, what would you imagine Canadian World to be, maybe a bunch of guys riding around with a Stanley Cup…or a bunch of provincial premiers complaining about healthcare funding? No, it was actually and specifically Anne of Green Gables World. They called it Canadian World, but it was really Anne of Green Gables which is hugely popular in Japan.

OCT: We love Italy, and you mention it in your book about the hotel you always stay at and you are doing what you tell people to do is to just get out there and find great spots. Walk the streets and explore. Your love affair with Italy goes way back and it helped you with your fashion you said too.

SB: Absolutely, originally there was more in the book about that, but I decided to dial it back. I realized it might not be a great topic to have an epiphany about, but I had one of those moments in life where I had an epiphany. 

It was on my first visit to Rome, and I was in a T-shirt and the little shorts with the backpack, and I just might as well have had a big sign saying Tourist. I was looking around at all these other people, and I was feeling ashamed. I was sitting in a café, and I saw these two young Italian men crossing the square. As I looked up, I saw what they were wearing, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was imprinting on them like a baby gosling imprinting on his mother. 

After that, I realized what those guys were to me was a role model. I thought that’s what I want to be. I want to look like that. It’s not simple and it’s not complicated. Sure, it’s not the deepest thing to have an epiphany about, but that was one of those moments where it just changed my life.

OCT: Steve, this is such a great read, and we really enjoyed it. And as we said earlier, if you travel, this is a book you want to read. And we should give the readers a little tease here. There’s also a romance that weaves throughout this whole book. And that’s all we’re going to say. 

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