It’s that wonderful time of the year when you start freaking out about what worthy item you can possibly gift for others, or, taking advantage of various sales, gift for yourself. Have no fear, the 2023 Annual Bucket List Gift Guide is Here! As with previous years, I present a range of truly eclectic products that have stood out for their usefulness, cool-factor, deliciousness, and utility both on and off the road.
The Innovative Travel Pillow
It was only a matter of time before some genius applied science to a singular issue for anyone flying long-haul economy: What do I do with my neck when I doze off? Travel pillows come in various shapes and sizes, but typically follow the C-shape format. And while some are inflatable (and about as reliable as a politician’s promise) and some are memory foam (and as convenient to carry as a guilty conscious), at last we have a different approach. The TRTL Pillow wraps around your neck like a scarf, a scarf with an internal support system for “optimal” neck and head support. Unfortunately, nothing is optimal when you fly long-haul economy. While the TRTL Pillow is pricey and takes some getting used to, catching much-needed zzzzs is worth every penny.
The TRTL Neck Pillow
Buy on Amazon
The Sweat Pant Jeans
During the hey-day of the pandemic – peak masked-up and locked down 2020 – I remember thinking: if someone invents jeans that look like sweat pants, they’ll make a fortune. Well, the Japanese did, and I’ve been wearing UNIQLO EZY Extra Stretch Jeans ever since. Available in four colours, with an elastic waist and a draw string, they look like real denims except they stealthily have the soft feel of sweats. Smart and casual enough to wear out, frumpy enough to wear while you binge watch Foundation (my underrated series of the year) on the couch, jean sweats are perfect for your everyday slacker ninja.
UNIQLO EZY Extra Stretch Jeans
The Boozy Chocolates
Maybe it’s the nostalgia of tasting liqueur in chocolates as a kid (it was the 1970s, and there’s not that much liqueur) but this beautifully packaged display of bottle chocs has become our personal dinner party favourite. High quality dark chocolate just works with when matched with whiskey, vodka, cognac, rum and other treats, and it’s not the plonk either. Danish-based Anthon Berg works with brands like Remy Martin, Contreau, Drambui, Mount Gay, Canadian Club, Famous Grouse and Sobieski. Pick your bottle carefully from the stylish choco-bar, unwrap, hold the neck and bite into the goodness. We found a great deal at Costco but they’re also well-priced on Amazon too. As for kids slurping back chocolate bottles filled with rum, I turned out alright. Sometimes.
Anthon Berg Chocolate Liqueurs
Buy on Amazon
The Drink-From-Anything Water Bottle
Last year I featured the Life Straw as a lifesaving little gadget that allows you to safely drink from any river, lake or stream. This is especially handy if you’re on a hike and need water, or if the zombies attack and the taps stop flowing. The Life Straw does however require some serious suction, which is why the Life Straw Go Series is a gamechanger, making the entire water-cleansing process a lot easier. Simply full up your BPA-free bottle with water, and the membrane filter will remove 99.9% of all bacteria, parasites, microplastics, dirt and sand. It also reduces chlorine and odours, improving the taste. Each filter can get through 4000 litres of water (about 5 years of daily use). It’s a no-brainer for anyone going to any country or destination where you can’t trust the water.
Life Straw Go Series
Buy on Amazon
The Night Lights That Actually Work
They say you get what you pay for, except for nightlights, which don’t seem to work no matter how much you pay. Too bright, not bright enough, to white, too orange, too motion sensitive, not motion sensitive enough. I’m too sensitive myself, having gone through a half dozen of these damn things in my attempt to avoid walking into a wall when my kid starts screaming in the middle of the night because of his latest Huggie Wuggie nightmare. Here at last are some nightlights that are fully customizable for brightness and sensitivity. They also have fireproof casing, a feature I truly hope I never have to appreciate.
UVON Plug in Night Light
Buy on Amazon
The Backpack Beach Chair
When did it become mandatory to require a wagon in order carry all the crap you need for the beach? The chairs and blankets, the shade tent, the beach toys, the food, the kids? The Tommy Bahama Backpack Chair is how I’m doing it from now on. Just a chair. On my back. A chair that has pockets for my phone and my ice-cold pilsner. A chair with a neck rest. A chair that is not a wagon. I’m done with wagons. The kids can carry their own lightweight chair too.
Tommy Bahama Backpack Chair
Buy on Amazon
The Scrubba Wash Bag
Since we’re all doing our best to travel lightly with only carry-on luggage, consider this washboard in a bag. A cleverly adapted lightweight bag essentially becomes a washing machine, allowing you to easily and conveniently and effectively handwash your clothing in under a minute. The 13-liter Scrubba can clean two shirts, underwear and socks in a wash: just add water, some liquid detergent, massage your clothes, remove, wring and hang up to dry. Particularly handy if you’re hiking, camping, backpacking, or trying to go far with little.
The Scrubba Wash Bag
Buy on Amazon
The Toilet Ottoman The Disco Toilet Light
I truly give a crap about your toilet experience. So much so that I give bidets as wedding presents. A bidet will seriously change your life. Trust me, it just will. That was my choice recommendation two years ago. I was going to suggest a toilet ottoman in this year’s Bucket List Gift Guide (which straightens your colon and aligns your pooper to conduct a healthier, more efficient business), but then I came across a Disco Toilet Light. Exposing your posterior to a regular blast of disco lights has been proven by absolutely nobody to be beneficial to your health. But it is fun. First get a bidet, then a toilet ottoman, then a disco motion sensor toilet light. Throw your bowels a party, and thank me later.
Toilet Disco Lights
The Muscle Massage Gun
Percussion guns (which is a great name for a band) became all the rage a couple years ago, and I’ve been testing them for 12 months to assess whether they are in fact a) a fad b) a poorly disguised sex toy c) a deeply beneficial therapeutic tool or d) a weapon of mass destruction. With a little imagination, it’s all of those things, but these muscle massage guns work, and they work well. Pop on a head (I usually use the ball, the bullet is for massaging Superman) and awkwardly point the gun on my offending muscle tissue. Better yet, find a partner or kid to work while you lie down skating the line between pain and bliss. These guns pack juice, and the long-lasting battery has a decent charge. Having tried several massage guns on the market, I recommend the Renpho Percussion Massager. Amazon is always having big sales with these things so look out for discounts.
RENPHO Active Muscle Massage Gun
Buy on Amazon
The Weighted Blanket
When I slept over at grandmas, she had green blankets that were as heavy as a sack of potatoes. It made me feel warm and safe, and I used to sleep like a sack of potatoes too. Too many decades later, weighted blankets help millions of kids and adults sleep better by reducing stress and anxiety. Weighted with glass beads, ball bearings or plastic, sleep scientists say the equal distribution of weight relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system in preparation for sleep. I don’t know what that means, I just know you’ll sleep better, on the bed or on the couch. While there are a wide range of brands out there (spanning a wider range of quality and price), Toronto-based Simple Sleep offer quality weighted blankets with fantastic value.
When it comes to staying safe on the road, everyone always talks about common sense, as if it's a force field that will protect you and keep the zombies at bay. What exactly are they talking about? Well, since you're asking:
Don’t Flash Your Wealth
In nature, predators hunt the easiest targets, the lowest hanging fruit. Those who target tourists do the same. If they see you walking around with expensive jewelry and cameras, or thumbing through rolls of cash, you become the easy mark. This is especially true in developing countries, where signs of wealth are displayed less flagrantly. Leave your $10,000 wedding rings at home or in the hotel safe. Keep your camera in its bag unless you feel safe in the environment. Draw as little attention to yourself, and try to blend in. It’s the simplest and easiest way to avoid the unwelcome attention of predators.
Don’t Go Where You Shouldn’t
It sounds so simple, and yet it’s amazing how often this is the cause of unfortunate incidents. Every city has places you should avoid. If you don’t know what they are, just ask a local who will gladly tell you. Meanwhile, if it’s avalanche season and you’re advised not to go venturing into the backcountry, heed the warnings. Official government alerts are often over the top, but do some research before you dismiss them outright, and unknowingly find yourself in a conflict zone. If you are visiting a hot spot, make sure you’re in regular contact with friends, and let a government office know. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way when it comes to ensuring you’re not in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Trust your gut
Our intuition has always been there, we’ve just forgotten how to hear it clearly. When you’re travelling though, it can yell a little louder than normal. You’ll hear it telling you: Don’t eat that chicken, it looks undercooked! Don’t walk down that street, it looks too dark? This taxi is taking too long, I’m being ripped off! Common sense means knowing when to trust that little voice in your head, and dismissing it when it’s being too paranoid. It takes practice, but many of the unfortunate stories we hear in the news could have been avoided if people just listened to their gut. Your intuition is a crucial tool for staying safe.
Know where you’re staying
Carry a card with the name, phone number and address of the place you are staying, especially in countries where you don’t speak or understand the local language. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, wandering about for hours before I could remember the unpronounceable name of the hotel I was staying at, located on an unpronounceable street in an unpronounceable district. Most hotels have business cards at reception, so make sure you grab one. If you’re staying with friends, ask them to write down their address to show a taxi driver. The rules of common sense are common for a reason: because they are so simple.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
Having traveled to over 100 countries, I firmly believe people would rather help you than hurt you. If you’re in a situation, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re in public and feel threatened, raise your voice, scream, make a commotion so that people know they should come to your aid. If you’re feeling sick, tell someone so they can get you to a doctor or pharmacy. If you can’t speak the language, use gestures. You’ll be surprised just how hospitable locals can be, and how much pride they take in making sure guests in their country are safe and happy. So much so that you’ll want to ask for directions repeatedly, since some locals would rather give you the wrong directions than tell you they don’t know the answer.
When it comes to your safety, you get what you pay for
In La Paz Bolivia, a very popular activity is to bike downhill a 67km road from the mountains into the jungle. A New Zealander who put safety first created it, but once it became a must-do activity for tourists, competitors popped by the dozen with other priorities in mind. They offer a cheaper price, but on cheaper bikes, without maintenance records. Subsequently over 15 tourists have died. The original company has had zero fatalities. Saving a few bucks is simply not worth your life when it comes to choosing between competing services. This is especially true for adventure outfitters, but also for transportation companies. Is the company reputable? Do they look and feel professional? Accidents still may happen, but cutting corners too often might lead to you flying off an edge.
Keep Online Backups of Your Passport, Details and Documents
If you lose everything, and I mean everything, make sure you have backups online. Send your webmail a protected Word doc containing your passport, insurance, banking information and passwords, addresses and contacts. Email yourself scanned copies of your passport and drivers license. Once you have all that information, you can begin the painful, yet necessary task of alerting all the relevant authorities about the theft or loss. But at least you’ll know who to call for help, and what information they’ll need to help you. Make sure, most importantly, you don’t forget your password to access this information online. It’s also a good idea not to keep all your valuables together. Just in case, when I travel I keep a back-up credit card stored in a different location.
Watch our for Common Scams
Read up on some of the most common scams so you’ll know what they are and how to avoid them. Fortunately, I’ve compiled a handy list for you right here. Crowded tourist attractions or markets are popular with pick pockets, so make sure your wallet is safely zipped up, and be vigilant about checking it’s still there. Carry your bags securely and be aware of your surroundings. Never, ever leave your luggage or bags unattended, especially in train or bus stations. Be friendly but weary of random people who approach you on the street.
Act Like You Belong
Scammers and thieves look for tourists displaying obvious signs of wealth, and also those who look nervous and uncomfortable. They might just say hello, but how you answer the question will determine whether you’re an easy mark. The key is to look relaxed and in control, no matter how freaked out and nervous you actually feel. Smile, make eye contact, be assertive but not aggressive. The goal is make it look like you’re too much work to bother with. I once found myself on the wrong bus and had to walk my way out of a South American slum. Inside I was panicking, but I kept my cool by strolling in the streets, smiling, looking like an out of place gringo who nevertheless knew where he was going. Locals are always more willing to help someone who’s behaving rationally than someone in a panic.
Always Carry Insurance, and Avoid Confrontation
Travel insurance is absolutely essential. A few dollars save your butt, and the peace of mind is priceless. Shop around, and read the policy to know what you’re covered for, and what’s excluded in the fine print. Insurance is there for a reason. Never, EVER confront someone threatening violence. It might be brave, but no watch, wallet or cash is worth getting hurt or killed. Remember that the vast majority of people travelling never experience any problems, but sometimes shit happens. Keep a clear head. Call the police to get a case number. Cancel your cards and find out about getting new ones. Contact your insurance company as soon as possible to file a claim. Resist the temptation to tarnish an entire country because of one unfortunate situation. You’ll be amazed at how people will come to your aid when you really need them. But with a little common sense, the chances are astronomically in your favour that you’ll be just fine.
As heartbreaking images and stories are being shared by friends of and in Israel, I am compelled to say something, in particular to my non-Jewish friends. In particular to those who don’t know too much about the history of the region.
People in Gaza desperately needed a Nelson Mandela. Someone who believed in a future, someone who was incorruptible. They initially voted for and have since been autocratically ruled by Hamas, an organization with an extreme ideology and official mandate to "obliterate Israel." Nelson Mandela didn't have to deal with religious fanatics, but still.
Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that supports free press, freedom of religion, the right to protest, LGBTQ+, full political representation for its Jewish and Arab citizens, and other rights familiar to those who live in a western democracy. That seems to get lost on a lot of people. LGBTQ protests in support of Palestine is like watching chickens marching for KFC.
Israel also has its own share of corrupt politicians and religious extremists, and it is far from perfect. But name another democratic country that has been at war since its inception, subject to suicide bombings and indiscriminate missile attacks. Name another democratic country repeatedly demonized, de-legitimized and condemned by double-standards in the UN. Name another democratic country with genocide hanging over its head, in the past, and in the future. There isn't one, and if there was, it wouldn't be perfect either.
Most of Israel's diverse population are descendants of victims from another mandate that called for genocide. Jews the world over have learned, to our horror, that attacks on our people and homes are not isolated incidents. We know where it can lead, and we know that all racism is cut from the same fabric.
There is simply no excuse for the Hamas attack. Blaming Israel in any way is victim-shaming at best, antisemitic at worst. Innocent people in Israel did not 'deserve' this anymore than a victim of rape or violent crime 'deserves' it. On that topic, it's worth pointing out that the popularity of the BDS/anti-Zionism movement is rooted in antisemitism (and if you follow the money largely funded by Iran). Student groups are oddly quiet about Iran, you know, that country that massacres its citizens at protests and beats women to death for not following Sharia Law. Venom appears strictly reserved for those damn free-thinking Israelis and their progressive trance music.
Zionism, you should know, refers to the right of all Jews to have a homeland they can be safe in. Condemning Zionism does not condemn Israeli leadership (who many Jews disagree with). It condemns all Jews, everywhere. Iran and Hamas are proudly and rabidly anti-Zionist. They don’t fight for a new Jewish leadership that will commit and compromise for a peaceful resolution. They fight so that there will be no Jews. Period.
Meanwhile, calling Israel an Apartheid state is insulting to all South Africans. I know, I am one, and lived through it. It's even more insulting to people of colour who suffered during Apartheid. Why? Consider: Arabs in Israels can vote, run political parties, own businesses, sit on the Supreme Court, work across all industries, marry whomever they want, and travel freely throughout the country. Arabs in Gaza who are vocally committed to Israel’s destruction face restrictions, because, I repeat, they are vocally committed to Israel’s destruction. Did you forget the suicide bombers that killed children, women and elderly on buses in Tel Aviv? Do you see what happens what happens if Israel doesn't take security seriously?
Even so, Israeli businesses offer gainful employment, non-discrimination, and hope to both Jews and Arabs. To those who disagree with me, I invite you to actually visit Israel, and to speak to Israeli Arabs. Ask them if they feel like second-class citizens. Then read up about the horrors of Apartheid, and while you’re at it, who funds and promotes the BDS movement. Then ask yourself: can people who are indigenous to a land actually colonize it? Jews have been living in this region for thousands of years, they didn’t just arrive on boats from Europe and say, “we’ll take it!” It’s hip to follow a campus cause, I get it. It’s not hip to be an uninformed bigot.
BDS would very much like you to boycott all Israeli products, including Sodastream, an Israeli company. Have you looked at a Soda Stream box? It says: “Made in Israel: This product was made by Arabs and Jews working side by side in peaceful harmony.” Those protesting a cause they know nothing about would rather this not be the case. They would rather Israeli businesses that employ Arabs and Palestinians shutter and lay everyone off. Their misguided intentions would be ironic if it weren't so devastating. I understand it’s fashionable to have a cause, although every single crime Israel has been accused of has also taken place in countries like China, Pakistan, the United States, Canada, Australia and many others. Why go after Israel and only Israel? Might it have something to do with, you know, the Jews?
It is also important to stress that innocent people in Gaza do not deserve this either. They want to live in peace and watch their children succeed like the rest of us. Yet what are we to make of Israeli corpses being dragged through the streets of Gaza, of Palestinians and those sympathetic to their cause celebrating this massacre around the world? Can you imagine Israel using its women and children as human shields? Can you imagine the Israeli Army raping and massacring young women at a Palestinian Peace Festival? There is no moral equivalence between a brutal, authoritarian death cult and a democratic society. Hamas not only kicked a tiger, they poked its eyes out and killed and kidnapped its babies. Israel’s response has been brutal, as a tiger’s response would be brutal. As for Hamas leaders, they fully anticipated this, and are hunkered down safely while their people suffer the consequences. Every time you see a sign or graffiti that reads “Free Palestine” please add just two words: “From Hamas.”
Sam Harris is perhaps the smartest, most reasonable thinker out there. In this excellent treatise about the sin of moral equivalence in this conflict, Harris writes:
“Simply the counting the number of dead bodies is not a way of judging the moral balance here. Intentions matter. It matters what kind of world people are attempting to build. If Israel wanted to perpetrate a genocide of the Palestinians, it could do that easily, tomorrow. But that isn’t what it wants. And the truth is the Jews of Israel would live in peace with their neighbours if their neighbours weren’t in thrall to genocidal fanatics”
By taking hostages, hiding militants in hospitals and using children as human shields, Hamas - supported by a brutal regime in Iran deeply threatened by an Israel-Saudi Arabia peace deal - has once again relegated the people of Gaza to cannon fodder. Hamas has long profited off violence and misery. Iran relishes the chaos. War and human tragedy is inevitable. They kick the tiger, the tiger lashes out, they condemn the tiger, then kick it again. The cycle has to stop.
If there is any silver lining to the current tragedy in Israel and Gaza, it is that a new leadership might emerge to clear the debris and aspire to a lasting peace. That, inshallah, the people of Gaza will finally resist and oppose the horrors of their Hamas leaders, and that Israelis will clear out their own broken leadership and galvanize around a secure, peace-committed future. Even then, it only takes one deranged religious lunatic on either side to derail everything. Yet thanks to Nelson Mandela (and his largely forgotten and overlooked counterpart, FW de Klerk) South Africa was able to somehow forge a lasting peace. Where is the Palestinian Nelson Mandela? When is the Israeli FW de Klerk? We could really use them when all this is over.
To my Jewish, non-Jewish and Muslim friends, please know: I mourn the suffering on all sides. I welcome debate. I feel your pain, anger, frustration and exhaustion. Inshallah and baruch hashem, we will one day get the leadership - and the peace - we so desperately strive for.
Ps: If you want to read a balanced book that is sympathetic to both Israelis and Palestinians as it explains the history of the conflict, I highly recommend Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth by Noa Tishby.
Almost a decade ago, I came up with an idea to profile veteran concierges at hotels so that guests could get to know who they are and what they do. The plan was to make short, engaging videos which the hotel could use online or on their in-room video channels. We filmed a demo with my friend (and part-time Word Travels production team-member) Neil Maclean, who epitomized the concierge role at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. I pitched a few hotel chains, all of whom passed because every star in the universe did not align and that is what it takes to bring any great idea to fruition.
I uploaded the video to Youtube, and noticed this week that it has now garnered over 175,000 views. That's pretty impressive for our little video - shot and edited by Ian Mackenzie. Below is the video, along with a short interview with Neil about what he does, and why guests should stop by the concierge desk more often.
Our primary role is to make life easier for our guests. This could mean anything from making dinner reservations, suggesting tourist activities, helping with directions, ordering flowers, and helping to resolve any guest issues.
You could argue we’re obsolete, but we have insider information you simply can’t get on your smart phone.
The perception is that the concierge can get sketchy things, like drugs and prostitutes. Fortunately, this is not the case. In all my years I’ve never been asked to get anything illegal. I think the movies have given people the wrong idea.
The role of the concierge is to give, give, give. It’s a contrast to the front desk, which can take, take, take. We’re a free service. Where else will you find a free expert on the city?
Concierges used to be arrogant and stuffy, like overbearing maître d’s. The modern concierge is approachable, patient, loves their city, and knows how to listen.
There are some services many people don’t know we can provide: We can change your flights, so you don’t have to spend an hour on the phone. We have relationships with airlines and operators, and usually get special treatment. We can help track lost luggage, or even deliver flowers to your room. We aim to exceed guest expectations, because we really enjoy what we do.
I have heard horror stories of concierges being verbally abused, or being asked to find drugs and what not. But it’s way more rare than people think. Fortunately I like my job, colleagues, and this grand, old hotel.
There’s no protocol for tipping concierges. We’re not servers or bellmen. We do get paid more than those guys, but tips are always appreciated.
My most popular question is: “Where is the bathroom?” My most outrageous request: A guest was looking for moose antlers, so I found myself calling taxidermists around the city.
Every day I meet people from around the world, and sometimes celebrities too. Over the years I’ve helped out Robin Williams, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Phelps and Cindy Crawford, who used to hang out at the concierge desk and chit-chat. So many people wanted photos of her I told her she should do it professionally.
We once arranged a private screening for Jerry Seinfeld, and a belt for Bill Clinton. A few weeks later we received a personalized thank you letter with the presidential stamp. The reality is that we would treat all our guests the same way.
The Scenic Eclipse’s owner wanted non-billionaire friends to experience the billionaire luxury yacht experience. Count yourself in.
The chef presents a burrito cigar, filled with chicken, salsa and guacamole, resting on a thick glass ashtray you haven’t seen since 1978. Next up is a slice of marbled Jack’s Creek Australian steak sizzling on hot pebbles, blow-torched to order, medium rare. Now the glazed fois gras lollipop, served on candy floss which is melted with chili-infused vinegar spray. There will be ten of these courses, each accompanied by a crystal glass of fine wine from every major wine-producing region. Am I in one of Vancouver’s new Michelin-star fine dining restaurants? No, I’m a passenger on the world’s most luxurious passenger yacht cruising off the Pacific coast of South America, and this is not even the most memorable meal of the week.
In the wake of the pandemic, cruise ships appear to be sailing in two different directions. There are the massive floating resorts appealing to the masses (MSC’s new Wonder of the Seas can accommodate a record 6988 passengers). Then there are the small, extravagant vessels that promise comfort and decadence beyond imagination. With just 114 suites housing 228 guests across five decks, the 168-metre long Scenic Eclipse sails firmly into this harbour, billed as The World’s First Discovery Yacht. This means it can safely navigate Antarctica and the Northwest Passage just as easily as it can cruise the Mediterranean or South Pacific. It also means that each extra-large, sound-insulated cabin has its own butler, electronically customizable beds, Dyson hair-dryers, all-inclusive mini-bar, balcony, gourmet coffee maker, and oversized rain shower bathroom.
-Boarding the Eclipse in Lima on a 9-day sailing to the Chilean capital of Santiago, the lush expansive lounge, beaming staff and towering bar all look impeccable. Doting, attentive and highly trained international crew outnumber guests three to one. The Eclipse was inspired by the Australian owner’s desire to offer his non-billionaire friends the billionaire luxury yacht experience. Forget the tiresome nickel and dime cruise dance, because everything is included: all premium alcohol, wifi, offshore excursions, all nine dining options, entertainment, kayaking, paddle-boarding, even your crew and driver tips. You do however have to pay to ride the two on-board helicopters and comfy submarine, along with expansive spa services that include a range of massage, hair styling and nail services. Considering the pricey rack rates for this bucket list cruise experience, those costs might feel like a drop in the ocean.
“Honey, there’s a sperm whale chilling off our balcony!” My wife is enjoying her long hot shower (the ship desalinates up to 200 tonnes of seawater every day) and misses the unexpected wildlife moment. Gathered for their daily wildlife briefing in the lounge, the ship’s marine biologists, naturalists and guides are suitably impressed. A sense of discovery, immersion in nature, and taking advantage of the ship’s many toys are baked into the Scenic Eclipse experience. Our particular itinerary, an annual repositioning called Latin American Delights, offers mostly land-based cultural excursions as the Eclipse makes her way south for another busy Antarctica season. In Paracas, Peru, zodiacs take us to the Ballestas Islands, where pungent guano is mined for fertilizer and hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest in dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Galapagos. The following day, flamingos and migrating birds await us in the protected Meija Lagoons, an hour’s drive from the historic town of Matarani. Relieved to welcome the first cruise ship to visit the port town in two and half years (Covid and political unrest battered regional tourism in Peru), locals pull out all the stops in appreciation. We dance, drink pisco, and smile for local media. Sailing into Arica, Chile, we leave the ship to explore the culture and alien landscapes of the Atacama. Life is in constant battle with the elements in the world’s driest desert. In a small desert village called Codpa, the resident shaman’s blessing over smoke, sweet wine and coca leaves feels deeply authentic. Each afternoon, we return by bus to the Eclipse’s decadent bubble of luxury, greeted with hot towels, spotlessly clean rooms, twinkling live piano music, courtly service, and a complementary cocktail bar of dreams. Whatever region of the planet you explore on this striking vessel, expect a jarring contrast onboard to the world you’ll discover onshore.
There are 135 different types of Scotch and whiskey at the bar, and recognizing the opportunity, I’m determined to taste as many as I can. Each dinner menu is a conversation starter, each dish over the top. Even at full passenger capacity, the Eclipse is designed to accentuate opulent space and comfort, hence her ten dining experiences when the outstanding Yacht Club buffet could easily suffice. Hell, the 24-hour room service menu would easily suffice. Smiling staff are eager to satisfy any guest request. Truffle fries at 1am in the morning? Yes sir! Changing one of the six types of available pillows before turning in? Yes sir!
Expect indulgent French cuisine in Lumiere, melt-in-the-mouth sushi at Kokos, grilled rib-eye steak and lobster in Elements, and expensive wine that just doesn’t stop flowing. My favourite meal is the Night Market, where a wonderful chef named Strawberry (yes, that’s her real name) exhibits her culinary creativity across eight courses of Indian, Middle-Eastern or Asian-inspired dishes that defy description. Her blueberry folded gelato served with curry-buttered popcorn and compote will haunt my tastebuds forever. Corporate Executive Chef Tom Götter’s commitment to sustainability and reducing food waste permeates everything: food scraps like vegetable peels and kitchen castaways are dehydrated and turned into fragrant ‘dusts’ and spices. All the gelato and baked goods are made onboard, while fresh herbs grow in specialized cabinets inside Epicure, which hosts cooking classes and beverage tastings. The Eclipse burns low sulphur diesel, and when liquid natural gas starts powering cruise ships, I expect Scenic – which operates luxury river cruises in Europe and has more ocean ships under construction - will be among the early adopters. Initiatives like digital labels updated daily in guest cabins might eliminate paper, although any readers seeking a sustainable vacation won’t find it on an engine-powered cruise ship, at least for now.
As we approach our final port of Valparaiso, heavy wind and high waves pound the ship, so I head to the bridge to see how our affable captain is dealing with it. The technology and engineering inside the Eclipse is mind-boggling. Oversize six-metre-long stabilizers have been deployed on either side, large enough to keep passengers steady on much larger ships. There’s no rudder, as each prop can rotate 360-degrees, while the ship can maintain her position without dropping anchor thanks to GPS positioning. Bridge crew welcome guest visits from 8am to 8pm, patiently explaining to us how the ship works, and allowing the obligatory captain’s chair photo. I can’t stick around though, I’ve got a manicure booked, and want to iron out my back in the infra-red sauna before tackling a half-dozen fragrant Speysides at the bar.
“Who the hell lives like this?” I ask my wife, busy scrolling on-demand movie selection on our cabin’s wall-sized flat screen TV. We need a few hours to digest the 10-course Chef’s Table dinner, featuring that burrito cigar, as well as coconut ceviche, braised BBQ rib, smashed mango-curry lamb chop, and a literal homemade chocolate fudge explosion. In fact, we’ll need a few years to digest the overall Scenic Eclipse experience. Together we’ve come a long way from our first cruise onboard a typical floating hotel with packed pools and excessive buffets. Luxury small ships like the Scenic Eclipse cater to a different clientele chasing unique and exclusive experiences. Pricey it may be, but passengers will delight in that rare opportunity to get far more than what you pay for.
Visit www.scenic.ca for more information about Scenic Eclipse itineraries.
“Don’t you ever just read a Grisham?” comments one of my friends. It’s been a busy summer, making up for summers past as travel returns to its pre-pandemic boom. After Tahiti and Sudbury, I dropped my bags, picked up my six-year-old son Galileo, and hopped over the Rockies to see what Calgary is up to these days. In a city accustomed to booms and busts, the boom is back. We’d spend a few days researching the urban and regional attractions that met my ‘bucket list’ criteria, chasing columns and new chapters for the upcoming second edition of The Great Western Canadian Bucket List. There would be time for bedtime stories, but that’s about it. .
We kick off with the Yamnuska Wolf Dog Sanctuary outside of Cochrane, a facility that rescues and shelters hybrid animals that belong in neither a domestic or wilderness environment. That doesn’t stop idiots breeding wolf-dogs, for idiots who think it would be cool to own a wolf. What they get are shy yet aggressive animals that make terrible pets, with untamed instincts requiring constant attention and secure zoo-like enclosures. Breeding wolf dogs is, inexplicably, legal in Alberta. The sanctuary does a fantastic job educating the public, looking after the animals they rescue, and advocating for both wolves, canines and hybrids. Next we drive into the foothills of the Rockies to spend the night with Tracey and Tim at Painted Warriors, a hands-on Indigenous cultural and wilderness experience that invited conversation around the campfire, archery in the forest, star-gazing, and nature walks. Among many other things, I learn I’ve been aiming with the wrong eye all my life (no wonder I always miss), how aspen makes natural sunblock powder, and that a professional archer can hit the top of a golf tee from fifty yards. Above all else, I learn yet again that meeting good people always results in a good time.
We drive back to the city, pick up outrageously good smoked meat sandwiches and ice-cream at the Calgary Farmers Market, and head across the highway for Downhill Karting. It’s the same luge contraption I discovered many years ago in New Zealand outside of Rotorua, and it’s fun to share the experience with my delighted kid. It’s the first time we’ve done a trip just the two of us together, and while Gali doesn’t have gunpowder energy of his Tahiti-toting sister, he’s observant, measured, and willing to give everything a go.
We’re here for a good time, not a long time, so it’s off to Lazy Day Rafting Rentals to float down the Bow River and experience one of Calgary’s more iconic summer activities. Gali super-soaked ducks and geese as the river gently floated us from our entry point to the Bow River Pathway Bridge. Drop off the boat, check-into the Residence Inn, and stroll over to The Mash, which upcycles grain from a microbrewery into delicious pizza dough. My pizza had everything on it, Gali ordered plain cheese. One day he will order toppings, add Tabasco, and say: “So this is why you order pizza with everything on it.” I look forward to that day.
We’re heading out the city again, but before we do, we pop into the National Music Centre to see Randy Bachman’s insane guitar collection, learn about Canada’s outsized role in the history of popular music, mix some beats, and gawk at the 64-foot one-man orchestra known as the Kimball Theatre Organ. We pop into the Hangar Flight Museum by the airport, and hit the road for the Good Knights Medieval Encampment for an evening of medieval glamping. This is an actual thing, and as you can read in my column for Canadian Geographic, it’s a very fine thing indeed! We dressed up, threw fake axes, jousted with real swords, and watched lords and ladies dance under the big prairie sky. We’d immersed ourselves in a fun, family-friendly world that is one-part history and one-part Lord of the Rings / Game of Thrones / Dungeons and Dragons fantasy. The things you can do in Canada never cease to amaze me.
A few days later, we’re out the country so I can take my kids to a place I swore I’d never take them to. You can read all about it here, with an honest column that I hope captures the parent’s experience of Disneyland. I’m not a theme park kinda guy, but visiting Disneyland was never going to be about me: it’s all about the kids, and the kids had a great time. We stayed the Grand California over the 4th of July weekend, when the park was heaving with visitors. The Genie + pass was essential to avoid the line-ups, but we probably should have eased Gali into the rides before kicking things off with a dark rollercoaster of Space Mountain. I don’t think he’ll ever forgive me. His sister, meanwhile, gravitated to the fastest, loudest, scariest rides. It’s remarkable these kids came from the same womb. I turned a shade of lime after the rollercoaster and falling elevator rides in Disney Adventure Park. In truth, the ride I was looking forward to most was a Harley Davidson Road King waiting for me back in Vancouver.
Last year I researched a story about renting a Harley from EagleRider Rentals in Vancouver, joining a bike crew on a road trip up Vancouver Island, ferrying to Bella Coola, and back through the BC interior. A year later, I join most of the same group (which happen to include the excellent Daniel Cook Band), and we roar off for a four-day loop of Vancouver to Osoyoos to Nelson to Lillooet to Vancouver. Once we got out of the congested city and past the summer construction, our bikes could blitz through the sweltering, rolling countryside. Motorcycles were out in full force, giving the eponymous biker wave when passing each other. Daniel and his band busted out their instruments in the evenings, which added a wonderful dimension to the trip, and delighted large groups of bikers with an impromptu roof top party at the Adventure Hotel in Nelson. We swam in the warm waters of Christina Lake, did a long, knee-cramping day in the saddle, played obligatory games of cribbage and did a memorable sidewalk jam in Lillooet. The diverse landscape and excellent roads of British Columbia delivered the goods. I’ve joined EagleRider’s membership program, and look forward to making this an annual tradition.
A weekend in Birch Bay, Washington (or as I like to call it, Canada in the USA), back across the Rocks for a wonderful wedding at the River Café in Calgary, and we’re up to date! I’m leaving early tomorrow morning to hike the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland. July has been one for the books, but it’s going to get really busy in August. Reading a Grisham can wait.
It’s difficult to describe the cultural whiplash, the immaculate jet set disorientation, that accompanies any traveller finding themselves in Bora Bora one day, and Sudbury Ontario a few days after that. As usual, I’m going to give it a go.
It was my first time in French Polynesia, although the coconut islands of Tahiti, Mo’orea and Bora Bora have long haunted my dreams, having featured in the pages of a paradise calendar that I cut out and plastered across my dorm room wall. I’d long heard about lagoons so clear you’d think the sea was an infinity pool, about beaches that squeak and opulent overwater villas. In truth, a week in the Maldives had made this nothing new. I’d also encountered Polynesian culture before through travels to New Zealand, Hawaii and the Cook Islands. I’d even explored the oddness of a French Overseas Territory before, on the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific and the Atlantic island of St Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland. Yet it’s the people you meet who create the paradise you find, and the people you travel with too.
Researching a story for an upcoming Islands and Wellness issue of Dreamscapes Magazine, I had set sail to capture the essence of multi-generational travel, how knowledge and attitude is transferred through experience. Joining me on this assignment was my mom and my daughter, completing a three-generation arc. We’d travelled together before, on a fantastic cruise around Atlantic Canada which resulted in a wonderful story for the Vancouver Sun, save for one critical detail: the cruise company went bankrupt shortly after our trip. Our days aboard One Ocean’s RCGS Resolute exploring Sable Island, Gros Morne National Park, St Pierre and the Magdalen Islands - and kitchen party nights in the ship lounge with the wonderful Barra MacNeils of Cape Breton - was truly a once-in-a-lifetime deal. On the other side of Covid, the time felt right to find a new ship, a different ocean, and see if magic can repeat itself.
Cruising on a small ship is a world away from cruising on a big ship. I learned this on the Star Flyer in the Caribbean, on the Scenic Eclipse down the coast of South America, and onboard the Wind Spirit as we anchor in Mo’orea surrounded by the island’s sharp granite peaks. Unveiled in 1988 as one of Windstar’s original vessels, the old girl – as her affable captain referred to her – is a beautiful ship: four towering masts, a fantastic crew, plenty of water toys, and just the right mix of luxury and adventure. We shared a cabin on the lower deck, and as the only child on the ship, my daughter quickly stole the show, running about as if she owned the boat. We visited a vanilla plantation and pearl farm, hired a scooter to circle Bora Bora (twice), kayaked and stand-up paddle boarded, and took advantage of some of the best snorkelling on the planet. Chats with the kids about shark conservation bore fruit when I watched my daughter jump into the sea with dozens of black-tip reef sharks, the first passenger to do so. The next day, my mom was molested by lovable stingrays in search of a cuddle. We listened to local storytellers, devoured fresh tropical fruit, did the cha-cha on the pool deck, and conversed with a diversity of personalities from around the world.
A few days later - luggage successfully retrieved after being lost in-transit between Tahiti, Los Angeles and Vancouver - I took my second red-eye of the week to catch an early morning flight from Toronto to Sudbury. The last time I was in the Big Nickel was for a book tour in 2013, when I spoke at the local Chapters bookshop. This time I had arrived to deliver a closing keynote at the Travel Media Association of Canada’s Annual Conference, which gathered over 200 of the country’s top travel writers, PR pros, influ..content creators, destination marketing organizations, and other professionals that make the business of travel media tick. It’s one of the few opportunities my profession has for stories to be told and sold, for connections to be forged, and destinations to be discovered. Workshops and panels inspire professional and personal development, and this year’s host city of Sudbury put on a show for our travelling circus.
Still bombed from the red-eye, I could have fallen asleep on the bed of nails inside the excellent and interactive Science North centre (a few minutes in the gyroscope woke me up and turned me green). An outstanding meal at the highly-rated Kouzzina was the first time I’ve had my appetite for carpaccio truly satiated. The event was an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues I haven’t seen since the pandemic, all of us bearing a few scars of that fever dream. It was an opportunity to chat about our industry, to learn, to gossip, to grow, and to plan the adventures you’ll be hearing about in the future. It was also an opportunity to taste fine Irish Whiskey (courtesy Tourism Ireland) and participate in the best karaoke party this side of Osaka. Sabrina Robson of Destination BC belts a version of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie that kicked up a storm and left the veteran karaoke DJ speechless. I did my part with perhaps the best karaoke performance of my career: Home for a Rest by Spirit of the West was simply the right song, delivered at the right time, for the right crowd.
My closing keynote addressed the past, present and future of travel media. I told everyone that we’ve been at the crossroads of change for so long I’m surprised nobody’s opened up a hotel resort at the intersection to take advantage of it. I looked back to the remote and recent past, discussing the transformations of mediums, the growth of tourism, overtourism, and the challenges and opportunities awaiting us around the corner. Stitched throughout was my own journey, discovering how to travel as an awkward teenager (Lawless Rebel!), learning how the media works as a student, and how I used curiosity to recognize potential. My goal was to celebrate our unique profession, and celebrate our good fortune to live and work in Canada. Receiving a standing ovation from my peers, colleagues and friends was truly humbling, making Sudbury yet another trip I’ll remember for a lifetime. Proving yet again: a bucket list experience is only as special as the people you share it with.
Vancouver is a world-class city increasingly recognized for its world-class cuisine. In late 2022, eight restaurants received the city’s first distinguished Michelin-stars. These were the Quebecois inspired St Lawrence, the Chinese iDen & QuanJuDe Beijing Duck House, the Japanese Masayoshi, and contemporary restaurants Public on Main, AnnaLena, Barbara, and Burdock and Co. As one might expect, all use premium, locally-sourced ingredients, but other than showcasing B.C’s outstanding seafood, would any be out of place in Quebec, China, Japan, or among other fine dining restaurants worldwide? No. If you’re looking for food of the land, food of the people, and food for thought, the restaurant to put on your bucket list is Salmon n’ Bannock. Take a seat inside the only Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver, and stop and smell the sage bush.
Located on West Broadway and tastefully decorated with Indigenous artwork, there’s a big heart at the centre of this small restaurant, and a story with every dish. It starts with a one-year-old girl swept up in the 60’s Scoop – a horrendous era when government authorities forcibly removed Indigenous kids from their homes. Inez Cook was taken from her Nuxalk community in Bella Coola and placed within foster care. Raised by loving white parents, she grew up with little connection to her Indigenous roots. As a flight attendant, she lived and travelled around the world, falling in love with cuisine, while nurturing a growing curiosity to learn more of her past. Salmon ‘n Bannock, inspired by a road sign and a dream, is the result.
When the restaurant launched in 2010, Inez was welcomed back by the Nuxalk, and has used great food to bring people together ever since. It’s a bold and confident act of what she calls reconcilli-action. Her friendly staff and kitchen crew serve up a unique menu of dishes native to the region, creatively adapted for discerning and adventurous urban palettes.
“Indigenous people used what was locally available,” she tells me over an alluring plate of appetizers. “Farm-to-table, the 100-mile diet, we were the OG trendsetters!”
With glowing reviews and profiles in global media including the New York Times, CNN and BBC, Salmon n’ Bannock is a fantastic story that literally breaks bread across the cultural divide. That said, you can’t eat a story, so what’s on the plate?
Hot smoked candied salmon with maple, cracked pepper, and delicate sweetgrass-infused cherries. Light elk salami and rich duck terrine. Citrusy salmon ceviche, double smoked cheese, homemade pickles, and the #addicitive wild BBQ salmon mousse. Baked bannock - which Inez corrects me rhymes with panic - makes a wonderful cracker, smothered with her updated version of traditional pemmican: smoked bison with sage-infused blueberries and cream cheese. I wash it down with a refreshing Bella Coola soda, infused with hibiscus, rosehips, orange and apple. No chance I’ll get to the bison pot roast, game sausage, Anishinaabe risotto, smoked sablefish, or urban sage-smoked salmon burger. One visit simply won’t cut it.
It’s healthy, sustainable and delicious, so when will Indigenous cuisine share a food court with Mexican, Thai, Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other international cuisines? This is not a theme, Inez reminds me. “It gets me from zero to a thousand in lividness when we’re called a theme restaurant. Japanese or Italian food is not a theme. Indigenous is not a theme. We are living cultures.”
There are only a handful of Indigenous restaurants across Western Canada, but they’re winning both fans and awards. Scott Jonathan Iserhoff’s Pei Pei Chew Ow café in Edmonton won Best Trailblazer in enRoute’s list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants. You’ll find the Kekuli Café in Merritt and West Kelowna, Bear and Bone Burger Co in Golden, the Ktunaxa Grill at the Ainsworth Hot Springs and several others. Those flying out of Vancouver can leave with a taste too: Salmon n’ Bannock opened up their second location inside the international departures lounge of YVR. Business is strong, but there are still plenty of challenges.
“You might have bad Chinese food one day, but that won’t stop you ever eating Chinese food again. People have to get familiar with our food. We only get one shot, and I want to build everybody up,” she says.
Oh yes, Vancouver is blessed with dozens of fantastic restaurants (and we don’t need Michelin to tell us that either). Yet crafting great food through an Indigenous lens and doing it responsibly with the full support of the community, suggests we’re heading towards a promising, and uniquely regional, culinary future. Enjoy the feast.
Here’s an actual conversation with my six-year-old on the final day of our eventful spring break.
“Well, what was your favourite part of our trip? Was it visiting the Statue of Liberty that you so desperately wanted to see? Was it the American Museum of Natural History, or that hilarious show we saw on Broadway? Was it hanging out with your aunt in Central Park, or taking the busy subway around the city? Was it spending a week playing in the big waves of Copacabana? Was it the cable car to Sugar Loaf Mountain to get that incredible view of Rio? Maybe it was the Wishing Tree and the monkeys we saw at the top of the mountain? Was it climbing on massive floats and dressing up in carnival costumes to dance with a beautiful samba princess? Maybe it was the sharks and stingrays we saw at the aquarium, or eating beach corn, grilled queijo and drinking coconuts at the beach? Playing with your cute Brazilian cousins, riding a bike along the beach, or spending time with your grandparents who spoiled you rotten with candy and cakes?”
Galileo thought about all this for a half a second, and replied:
“My favourite part was taking the airplane.”
I write these words during our final flight home after two-and-a-half weeks abroad. After a ten-hour overnight leg from Rio to Houston, we spent 90 minutes in line-ups to clear US customs and airport security. Removing friction from travel is a primary driver for tourism growth. Adding friction and making life difficult for passengers is the domain of government security and regulations, which has built nonsensical layers of procedure atop unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that make no sense to anyone. Are we still removing our shoes because one idiot unsuccessfully tried to blow up a plane with his shoelaces twenty-five years ago? Are we still confiscating perfume because liquids over 100ml are deadly? Are we still getting grilled by customs while connecting through a transit bubble, and going through security again even though we never left the sealed-off arrivals hall? Which is why, if you have anything less than a two-hour international connection these days, you’re playing with fire. All this said, our planes took off on time, United Airlines staff have been lovely, and even though they misplaced one of our suitcases for 48 hours, the system somehow worked well enough for little Galileo to have the time of his life, both on the plane and off it.
I’ve never been a particular fan of New York. I’ve visited the city a half dozen times, mostly for professional reasons, and I've always got the sense it's a frenetic place for those in ivory towers, and the overworked masses who support them. How does it go: Live in New York but leave before you become too hard, and live in LA but leave before you become too soft. New York tends to be city utterly swept up in the sense of its own self-importance. This is not the centre of the Earth (geographically that’s somewhere in Turkey). Being rude to strangers is not charming, it’s just being rude. Perhaps when I was in my twenties, I’d have more fire and energy to take on The Big Apple, a zest I’d exhausted in late 1990’s London (The Big Smoke). Age has now mellowed me, and nature holds infinitely more appeal than nightclubs or fancy restaurants. On this trip, I found the subways exhausting, the line-ups at the attractions intense, the people brusque. Times Square was a violent display of overwhelming advertising and grift. I certainly enjoyed visiting the Statue of Liberty and American Museum of Natural History with my kids. Both world-class attractions are transitioning from Covid protocols and were somewhat chaotic. We used a CityPASS which saved us a few bucks, and a company called TodayTix to get heavily discounted Broadway show tickets. I took the family to see The Play That Goes Wrong, which had all ages in stitches and was the perfect family-friendly live theatre experience, especially for kids who have never seen this level of professional theatre before. We caught a lovely sunny day at Central Park, and my daughter’s birthday present was a visit to the goopy Sloomoo Institute, which will get its own sloppy sticky story in due course. We stayed with relatives downtown, and as always, reconnecting with family proved to be the best highlight of all.
It's been almost a decade since I visited Rio de Janeiro, presently emerging with the rest of Brazil from dark political days. Just about all my time would be spent with family in Copacabana, staying with my in-laws who live one block from one of the most famous beaches in the world. Heading into fall, the weather was spectacular: 30℃ blue skies, crashing waves, not a drop of rain in a month that could just as easily be a washout. Little stalls along the beach offer chairs, umbrellas, drinks and food, and with a caipirinha in hand I was content to watch the kids play in the waves while an endless stream of touts made the rounds offering everything from bolinho de bacalhau (cod fish cakes) to loud shirts and Bluetooth speakers. I don’t recall Copacabana being this clean, lovely and safe, especially in the evening. New waste treatment plants have made the water safe to swim in, tourism police and lifeguards patrol the shores, locals wear their teeny-weenie bathing suits, and you can happily spend all day doing nothing (the Brazilian way). The neighbourhood was also noticeably LGBTQ-friendly. My kids got to know some local characters, relished their acai bowls, street food, Brazilian family, shopping excursions and night markets (the Canadian dollar goes far here).
Of course, we still had time for the sensational views atop Sugar Loaf Mountain and the AquaRio, the largest aquarium in South America. We also took a braziliant tour called Carnaval Experience, taking us backstage at Samba City to learn about the city’s legendary festival. Staying relatively put – by my standards anyway – I was reminded of the months my family spent in Chiang Mai and Hoi An, which allowed us to get under the skin of a different place and culture. Like New York, the traffic and chaos of Rio can get a little much, but since my goals were modest, it was a joy to reconnect with our Brazilian family on these too-few, too-rare occasions, allowing the kids to immerse themselves in the culture of their mother’s heritage. Ipanema, Santa Theresa, Lapa, heck the rest of Brazil would have been fantastic. Maybe next time... or maybe I won’t get too far from the beach again. Either way, the friction of six airports, the white-knuckle taxis, the financial expense, the subways, the heat, the rain, the packing, the crowds, the jetlag…it’s all worth it, and it always is.
Two hundred and fifty CEOs, fifty-two ministers of tourism, three hundred travel journalists, and nearly three thousand professionals have gathered to redefine tourism in the post-pandemic era, selecting a rather controversial venue for the occasion. The annual World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit has also attracted movie stars like Edward Norton, prominent international TV anchors and a spattering of supermodels, some of whom no doubt shared my unease flying into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. With its torrid reputation for human rights and on-going diplomatic spat with Canada, friends and family were genuinely concerned for my well-being. Despite the kingdom’s attempt to reinvent itself as a tourism mecca guided by the vision of its millennial Crown Prince, travel advisories cautioned me to log out of social media apps, avoid government buildings, and adhere to strict local customs. My wife also advised me to please keep my mouth shut, knowing full well I have an inherent incapacity to do so. Supplied with a new Saudi tourist visa and with an invitation for the conference, I had no idea what to expect.
I didn’t need pyro-drones topping off a multi-million-dollar fireworks show to witness Saudi Arabia’s eye-boggling investment in tourism. It was immediately evident pulling up to Riyadh’s palatial Ritz Carlton Hotel and Conference Centre. The production values of the WTTC event were staggering, along with impressive showcases for Saudi Arabia’s four high-profile giga-projects – developments that aspire to create entire cities out of thin air. The CEOs of Marriott, Hilton, Carnival, Accor, Hertz and Hyatt were on stage, along with dignitaries from Portugal, Austria, South Africa, Costa Rica, the USA, the UK and Australia. CNN’s combative host Richard Quest grilled them about how the tourism industry intends to pay more than just lip service to sustainability, a major theme throughout the two-day conference. With great fanfare, the WTTC released the first-ever report to measure tourism’s impact on global carbon emissions. The conclusion is that airfare, hotels, cruises and the like account for 8.1%, less than the previously estimated 11%. Reporters questioning the report’s methodology were reassured that the numbers would be scrutinized by governments and NGOs around the world. After the scourge of over-tourism and the challenges Covid, a revitalized industry is taking responsibility seriously.
Buzz words and catchphrases flowed thick and fast: community engagement, greenwashing, decarbonization, revenge tourism, zero gravity urbanism, follow the data with next generation artificial intelligence. “We are not in the service industry, we are in the care industry,” said Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark Hoplamazian. Above all, there was a lot of overall optimism. Despite a labour crisis, inflation, China’s iffy recovery and the tragic war in Ukraine, global tourism’s pandemic recovery has been faster and fiercer than anyone expected (Destination Canada revised and shortened its own tourism recovery projections too). Demand is quite simply outstripping supply, bringing with it opportunities and issues. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced his frustration that government climate initiatives were lagging, supermodels Elle McPherson and Adriana Lima launched new Awards for Sustainability, the WTTC released various economic reports, and multiple newsworthy deals and announcements were made. Corporate tourism is a massive industry so I won’t bore you with the details, but it was hard to ignore the rather large elephant in the room. An elephant called Saudi Arabia.
“I want women in Canada to know that our lives here are not what they think our lives are,” explained Alhanouf Aldrees, a cultural manager at Riyadh’s spectacularly restored Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d made a point to engage with as many Saudis as I could, asking thorny questions so I could hear their side of the story. What they shared left me in little doubt that the country is experiencing neck-bracing social change, reminding me of how quickly everything transformed when I lived through the fall of Apartheid. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (popularly known as MBS) is smashing traditions with an iron fist, breaking both glass ceilings - and political opponents - in his goal to modernize and restore his kingdom after decades of conservative religious isolation. Supported by Ivy League-educated staff and enjoying widespread domestic support from a youthful population, MBS wants to spearhead a new global economic landscape.
You’ve likely heard about the plight of Saudi women, the persecution and murder of Saudi opposition (including a prominent US-based Saudi journalist in grisly fashion), the brutal proxy war in Yemen, mass beheadings of local activists, and the infamous 2017 Royal purge that took place in the same Ritz Carlton hosting the WTTC event. You probably have not heard about the legal reforms assuring Saudi women of their independent right to drive, work, remove their abaya, marry, divorce and travel. We don’t hear how hardline religious authorities have been stripped of their influence and power, or that MBS has denounced the hardcore Wahhabism that Saudi Arabia has traditionally used to promote Islamic extremism. We certainly don’t hear much about Saudi Arabia’s striking skyscrapers and sprawling neon malls, busy late-night highway traffic and massive shopping palaces. The news doesn’t cover MDL Beast Soundstorm, an annual desert concert that attracts more than two hundred thousand people from around the globe (this year headlined by Bruno Mars, Post Malone and a dozen electronica superstars). Did you know that this year’s Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah screened LGBTQ+ movies, celebrated women in cinema, hosted a conversation with Spike Lee, promoted movies that challenged Islamic practices, and claimed zero censorship? Cinemas were unbanned just five years ago, and yes, homosexuality is still illegal.
I’m struggling with the contradictions too, but before you fire up your outrage, consider speaking to the people who live here. Tourism has always transcended politics and media.
“If Saudi Arabia reaches out,” WTTC CEO Julia Simpson tells me, “our job in tourism is to reach back.” This is why WTTC members are investing around US$10.5 billion into the country, opening major hotels, resorts, air routes, cruise terminals and dozens of commercial developments. Princess Haifa Al Saud, the kingdom’s impressive Vice Minister of Tourism, says that one hundred thousand Saudis are being trained in hospitality to work in fully sustainable resorts. It is Dubai all over again, employing the latest technology, and doubling down on ambition.
The four giga-projects are too mind-boggling to get into too much detail. A 170 km-long, 500m-high, 200m-wide mirrored skyscraper city for nine million people? Watch the promo video for The Line and I dare you not to gasp. There are massive tourism developments on the Red Sea, in Riyadh, and in the rocky desert of AlUla. Neom’s Ewok-fashioned ski resort, Trojena, looks like something out of a science fiction movie, and all of it boasts “next generation AI” so as to be “fully sustainable” with “cutting-edge design” from “the world’s leading architects.” If you build it, they will come, and the Saudis are building big, spending an estimated US$1 trillion to build a global tourism economy, and increase its non-oil GDP from 16% to 50% within a decade.
The world’s largest desalination plants water the desert, and the world’s largest airport (under construction) hopes to welcome 100 million visitors by 2030 - all paid for by the world’s second-largest oil reserves. And here lies the elephant in the room. Pumping millions of barrels of oil to pay for sustainable mega-projects, admirable as they may be, does little to mitigate global climate change. Climate scientists are imploring nations to keep the carbon in the ground, including Canada, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves. I cannot help but wonder if Saudi Arabia’s jaw-dropping showcase developments – built by migrant workers in the scorching desert heat – might end up serving the mega-rich as escape pods for climate disaster. At Riyadh’s wild exhibition for The Line, I ask a proud guide who will clean the dishes, or pick up the garbage. “There will be no blue-collar workers here,” he replies. What about crime? “There will be no crime in The Line.” Next generation AI and robots will take care of all of it. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. The line between utopia and dystopia feels very thin indeed.
“Travel is all about faces, not places,” says my cheerful Riyadh guide Ali, and he’s right. Plenty of mega-developments across the Middle East look to redefine the region in a post-oil future, but it’s the Saudis themselves who offer something truly unique. Their warm hospitality is genuine and delightful. I experience “welcome welcome!” everywhere, accompanied by smiles, handshakes, curious questions, and gratitude for visiting. I relish the fragrant, blonde Saudi coffee served with sweet dates at every entrance, enjoying the smell of exotic spice in the desert breeze. Locals insisted on buying me a $20 mocktail at a Jareed Hotel bar, although bar is the wrong word. Alcohol remains strictly illegal in the kingdom, a major hurdle if the kingdom hopes to attract legions of international holidaymakers. One step at a time.
I end up speaking to almost a dozen local women in Riyadh and the coastal city of Jeddah, admittedly a small sample size, but I have drawn conclusions from fewer interactions before. These women were highly educated (tertiary education is free) and well-travelled, staking out prominent positions in politics, culture and business, stepping into the light with their new-found legal independence. A minority of Saudi ‘liberals’ are dispensing with religious traditions altogether, adopting modest western clothing, although still adhering to rules like separate recreational areas. Most continue to embrace Islamic traditions and culture with great pride and surprising flexibility within the Koran’s interpretative framework. One asks me: “Why do women in Canada feel they can speak for my rights? Why do they think I’m oppressed? Do they know my life?” Even with the best intentions, we can’t claim to always know what is in someone else’s best interest, especially if we don’t engage and listen to them first.
As for the WTTC Global Summit, any event that brings together such a diverse group of people, cultures, companies and ideas can only be a good thing. Tourism breaks down stereotypes, facilitates dialogue, promotes engagement, and builds on generous hospitality. Next year the WTTC Global Summit is in Rwanda, another country with a problematic past, and tremendous tourism potential. If the world reaches out, we should always reach back.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.