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 or immersion travel or impact travel are yet other names – you'll be part of a growing number of travelers for whom seeing places is no longer enough.
According to Wikipedia, the goal of experiential travel is: "to more deeply understand a travel destination's culture, people and history by connecting with it more than just by visiting it. Therefore, the traveller usually gets in touch with locals who give guidance how to experience a place."
Today we want to experience our destinations and their people and 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.
When I visited Colombia, 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 had broken 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), back when when checkpoints dotted the road and getting in and out was more a question of luck than planning. These insights would never have emerged 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" experiential tourism definition 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. Yet many people travel without any kind of change, other than the scenery.
Yet many of us 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 experiential travel is to change in some way, however slightly, we need to take action to make this happen. Here are some experiential tourism examples we try:
Experiential travel has evolved for a number of reasons, mostly because we needed the world of 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. Like most "new" labels, they become trendy and everything gets thrown in there!
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.
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.
Some travel defies description, but I've listed it 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" as a marketing ploy. Using such companies is not necessarily bad, because we don't always have the time or knowledge to seek out the perfect local community; sometimes, we have to count on others to do the groundwork.
But as with all good things, they can be taken to excess and some companies end up commercializing the experience – which is exactly the opposite of what we're looking for. The money is then repatriated as profit and the local community hardly sees any of it.
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.
The dangers of overtourism have been amply documented and even though the Covid pandemic gave certain destinations a respite, it was only temporary.
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.
Many travels are "passed off" as experiential, but 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 media and 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.
As I write this, I'm planning a visit to Paris and after poring over a multitude of guides and suggestions, I've decided to simply wing it for a day or two, just choosing a point of departure and not planning anything else. Wandering. Exploring. Observing. Chatting. Moving with the city rather than trying to shape it to any kind of norm.
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 – or you may be met by a smile in return. It could be the start of a connection.
Reaching out in understanding rather than closing up in suspicion. These experiential tourism trends appear here to stay.