Guilt Trip: Vancouver author poses hard questions about post-pandemic air travel in new book

The idea of “leaving on a jet plane” doesn’t have the same appeal it once did. Travel, especially flying overseas, was once a mark of status and sophistication. However, like many things since COVID-19, its absence during the pandemic has made us question its continued existence given its negative impacts.

In these climate-conscious times, “flight shaming”- a global movement to stigmatize air travel – has become a thing. Short-term accommodation websites like Airbnb are also increasingly blamed for exacerbating our housing crisis.

So, can tourists and the industry that supports them be vindicated? Author Steve Burgess aims to find out in his new book Reservations: The Pleasures and Perils of Travel.

Burgess is a veteran of Vancouver radio, TV, and print media. These days, he is a contributing editor at The Tyee. Burgess credits editor-in-chief David Beers for inspiring the book one night over dinner.

“I’ve been writing travel stories for many, many years and have long dreamed about writing a book,” he said.

“We were talking about my idea to write a travel book and he was the one who was telling me, ‘It can’t just be you spinning some cute travel stories. It’s got to be about more than that.’ And he really set me on the path of doing an investigation of travel and the travel industry.”

The result is part travelogue, part memoir, and part personal research project – tied together by the author’s characteristic wit. Alongside tales of some of his solo travel excursions, Burgess poses some tough questions – from what drives us to explore and the difference between being a tourist and a traveler to whether flying can be justified during a global climate crisis.

He cites a statistic from the group The World Counts that says tourism contributes more than five per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

John Ackermann sits down with Steve Burgess author of Reservations: The Pleasures and Perils of Travel

So, to borrow a phrase from the book, is every vacation essentially a guilt trip?

“If you are a mindful tourist, someone who is a responsible traveler, it’s almost unavoidable to have some guilt now. And the question is, what do you do about it? Do you stop traveling? Or do you find a way to do it better,” he said.

“You know, I hate to be a spoiler here, but I don’t think there are any easy answers in my book.”

“I’d certainly be a giant hypocrite if I sat here and said, ‘Oh, people shouldn’t travel’ because here I am in the book telling all my travel stories. And I don’t intend to stop traveling. And yet, it’s just more complicated than it used to be, isn’t it? I mean, there really are serious issues that did not exist, even before we were aware of climate change and also before the era of cheap airfares.”

Burgess consults a variety of experts who float various ideas like a frequent flier tax or banning short-haul flights where train or bus alternatives exist as France has done. Admittedly, the latter may not work in a country with the type of geography Canada has.

One of those experts he spoke with is William Rees, the UBC professor who was among the first to use the term carbon footprint. Rees thinks as fossil fuels run out, international air travel could be the first to go. Burgess politely disagrees.

“[Rees] is the most extreme voice in the book. He says air travel will be the first to go. My thought is air travel will be the last to go. As long as there’s a drop of jet fuel, there will be planes in the sky,” he said.

“Right now, when you have opposition parties who won’t even accept a carbon tax, how are you going to get them to say, ‘Okay, let’s cancel travel’? No, it’s not going to happen.”

Another issue Burgess raises is the problematic nature of short-term accommodations like Airbnb. As of May 1st, BC is legislating that hosts can only rent out spaces if they are within their primary residences. He points out, that what started as a way for people to make some extra money renting out a spare room quickly turned into a parallel lodging industry run by large companies controlling dozens, even hundreds of units.

“I tend to side with people who say that Airbnb does need to be reined in – not wiped out – but reined in. I think it does unbalance the housing market,” he said.

Burgess admits the book asks more questions than it answers, but that is kind of the point.

“We take travel for granted. You know, it’s like, ‘Let’s go to a beach and have a Mai Tai’ or ‘Let’s go to Paris and shop,'” he said.
“I hope that the book will just make people stop and think about travel itself, rather than just the trip that you happen to be taking, but thinking about travel itself, and the travel industry, and that maybe that will have an impact overall on the choices that people make.”

Reservations: The Pleasures and Perils of Travel is published by Douglas & McIntyre.

Author Steve Burgess will be appearing at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library on Thursday, May 2nd.

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