Rick Antonson | BCBusiness

Rick Antonson | BCBusiness
Tourism Vancouver CEO dines with Lucy at CinCin restaurant in Vancouver.

International curiosity helps define Tourism Vancouver CEO Rick Antonson’s vision for the city.

Inquisitiveness, it soon becomes clear, is at the crux of Rick Antonson’s obsession with travel.

Tourism Vancouver’s CEO hones in on our server’s German accent this lunchtime, intermittently inquiring about her story throughout our pappardelle feast (his, creamy chicken; mine, ragu) at CinCin restaurant in Vancouver.

It’s a fascination that effortlessly blurs the boundaries of work and play for the 62-year-old. Outside the running of his 60-strong tourism team, where he’s been for nearly 20 years (before that he promoted Edmonton and was vice-president at Rocky Mountaineer), Antonson recently landed a three-book deal that more than tickles a wanderlust beyond the city limits.

Evoking a pilgrimage theme, his upcoming travelogues for Toronto’s Dundurn publishers focus on the “most-revered” sites of Mecca, Mount Ararat and Route 66. He regales me with stories of the last: covering the old parts of the fabled 2,400-mile-long Main Street of America by taking a “rented Mustang convertible places we had no business taking it – and getting mightily stuck in the mud”; and falling in love with the photojournalism of Dorothea Lange.

His vigour results in a kind of writer’s block in reverse: “My editor told me, ‘Rick, we still have room for fewer words,’” he laughs, explaining that he is fastidious about scribbling down all the nuances of a day’s travel. “I’m good on deadlines and research. You make time for the things you love,” adds Antonson, who has already penned To Timbuktu for a Haircut: A Journey Through West Africa (a title sparked by a quirky saying his father said whenever he popped out of their Vancouver home) and co-authored Slumach’s Gold: In Search of a Legend.

Furthermore, he needs to fill the time between rendezvous with wife, Janice, who is general manager of aviation and marketing at Australia’s Cairns Airport. Both are executive board members of 30-country-strong Pacific Asia Travel Association and Antonson’s role takes him to “at least 50 different beds a year” around the globe.

Even time spent with his two grown-up sons from his first marriage often involves a journey. With one teaching in Iraq and the other, who is in event management, living nearer his father in South Vancouver, the trio meets every three years for a train vacation. The India Pacific ride across Australia is next; five others, including trips in Russia and North Korea, have already been checked off their list.

Antonson’s dedication to travel is spurned on by the belief that it is a “vital force for peace,” he says, poaching the sentiments of Louis D’Amore, the founder of the International Institute for Peace through Tourism. “Travel is my mistress,” he adds, endearingly hugging his arms across his chest. “I often say there are 216 nations that call this tiny planet home, and each of us is but one step or two from someone in every one of those countries. Tourism takes down the barriers to understanding.”

The world has come to understand Vancouver via the Olympics and its dominance as one of the world’s most livable cities: “Vancouver has great brand recognition,” Antonson says, adding that the city enjoyed a tourism spike of more than eight million visitors annually in 2010 and 2011.

However, with the world in “economic tossed salad,” he knows this year will be poor. “There may be more visitation, but they will spend less,” he says, going on to predict 2015 will surpass this year’s visitors as the world settles after the downturn. Anchored by bookings already as far ahead as 2021 (thanks to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons), Antonson also praises the expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre (of which Tourism Vancouver is a partner, along with federal and provincial governments), as well as the cruise industry in attracting visitors and dollars.

It all taps into Tourism Vancouver’s overarching desire to see Vancouver be regarded as a “world city” by 2020. “It’s about the city having gravitas; it’s hard to define, but you know it when you say London, New York, Hong Kong or Barcelona. We’re not there yet,” he explains passionately over petits fours, “but we deserve to be.” And with the breadth of Antonson’s own travel experience, you know this isn’t just the fond imagining of a tourism brochure.