When you take a cooking class in a local's home or visit a market with a chef instead of simply eating in a restaurant, that's experiential tourism or travel.
And if a conversation with a West Bank Palestinian or a Syrian refugee in Turkey enlightens you, builds a bond or sparks a change in perspective, you will have unwittingly wandered into the labyrinth of transformational travel, a form of experiential travel.
Whatever you call this clutch of travel styles – transformative and impact travel are yet other names - you'll be part of a growing number of travelers for whom seeing places is no longer enough.
Today we want to experience destinations, meet their people, understand their customs and somehow be affected by them. Some call it a trend, but I believe this is part of a more aware society, one that is desperately eager to connect.
Whenever I travel I look forward to any experiences that come my way. I still see the sights and go where everyone has gone before, but I do my best to meet people locally. I'm curious about how they live and that extra understanding helps me capture the essence of a place and delve below the surface.
Recently I visited Colombia and my trip was incredibly enriched by using a local tour guide and unexpectedly spending the night in a rural coffee planting community because our car broke down. That one night and the conversations that ensued probably taught me more about Colombia than several weeks of travel.
I learned what life was like in an isolated rural community under the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), when checkpoints dotted the road and getting in and out was more a question of luck than planning. These insights would never have happened without the car breakdown, or the electrical storm that took out the power, forcing us all to sit and talk for hours.
There's no "fixed" definition of experiential tourism or travel but it conveys our need for greater immersion, for a more local experience or a more "authentic" one (although I'm not comfortable with the word authentic because I'm never quite sure what it means).
You could argue that most travel is experiential, as long as it evokes a change in thinking, sparks a feeling or teaches you something. Perhaps.
Bottom line, we want to enjoy a more personal experience and some of us want to emerge changed, affected, somehow improved.
The connection we make with a place helps us do that.
If the whole point of this kind of travel is to change in some way, however slightly, experiential travel can help us expand and...
Experiential travel has evolved for a number of reasons – mostly because we needed travel to change.
I admit I've often traveled simply for the sake of travel – a consumer of sights, in a way – but I am reexamining what I do when I travel, and how I do it, for many of the following reasons.
Not only is it good for us, the traveler, but experiential and transformational travel can also benefit the local community, which is something many of us want to do when we travel.
So many kinds of travel qualify as experiential or transformative that it's confusing. Here are a few ways our travels can be experienced - and they all involve authenticity and connection in local experience travel:
A popular type of travel that involves experiences is, of course, volunteering, often on a volunteer holiday. And age is no barrier – many women volunteer as seniors and return thoroughly fulfilled from their experience.
Education and learning are part of the growing experiential travel trends we are seeing.
Discovering art and crafts and traditions are all part of experiential vacations.
Many of us travel for self-discovery and empowerment.
Experiential travel can come in different styles, such as:
Spiritual travel feeds the spirit and easily qualifies as experiential or transformational travel.
And then there is the type of travel that defies description, but that I've listed here because it has an impact on us, even if we don't connect directly with other people.
Like everything, experiential travel has its imperfections.
Experiential travel companies are appearing everywhere and packaging the "travel experience". Yet not everyone has the time or knowledge to seek out the perfect local community so sometimes we have to count on others to do the groundwork. But as with all good things sometimes they are taken to excess and companies end up commercializing the experience - which is exactly the opposite of what we're looking for.
As certain less-frequented places become more popular, they will attract more visitors and risk becoming just like those places where busloads drop off their charges.
At the same time, a surge in popularity can overwhelm an unknown destination without the correct infrastructure.
Our search for the "authentic" can be detrimental to the local community. As certain traditions become popular, the people to whom they belong may be tempted to please visitors and earn an income by providing what they think visitors expect - but if they try to live up to our expectations, they might be watering down their own traditions.
Then there are the many experiences "passed off" as experiential and are nothing more than mass tourism with the application of a thin local veneer - for example, a quick swing through a local market with a group of 20 others, only to be able to say you've been there.
And in these times of social sharing, nearly every journey is replicable. You can see someone's trip or duplicate their itinerary and follow in their footsteps. For many people this is helpful (I too publish itineraries, like this one-day Madrid visit). But some independent travelers could end up feeling they've had a cookie-cutter vacation.
So if things start feeling too easy or familiar, veering off the path is not only to be recommended, it is essential. Chuck the itinerary, hop on the bus and sit next to another woman and smile. You may be met by a suspicious glower - but you may equally be met by a smile in return. It could be the start of a connection. And this trend is here to stay.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about experiential travel. Is this how you travel? What has been your experience? Please comment below!