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Women on the Road

Experiential Tourism: Passing Fad or Travel Breakthrough?

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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.

My traveling companions on the road to Las Hermosas coffee farm, after the car broke down. It takes an hour each way on horseback to reach the nearest small town - and that's when the pouring rain doesn't turn the road into a slippery pool of mud ©WOTR

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.

But first - what does experiential mean?

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.

How experiential travel affects us 

If the whole point of this kind of travel is to change in some way, however slightly, experiential travel can help us expand and... 

  • Break out of the bubble we use to protect ourselves and remove the barriers that isolate us from others – the tour group, the all-inclusive resort or the well-worn tourist circuit.
  • Connect with individuals, real people with real lives. Some of these connections can turn into true friendships (I'm still in touch with friends I made when I crossed Africa in the 1990s). 
  • Understand our destination better because we'll actually see how people live, argue, love, eat, shop and have fun, which allows us to respect our differences and acknowledge our similarities.
  • See places fewer people see, that "off the beaten path" we're so keen to travel.
  • Broaden our knowledge, open our minds and provide insight into our own lives and cultures.
  • Become better global citizens because so many stupid policies and decisions are underpinned by ignorance or fear of others.

Why has experiential tourism become so popular?

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.

  • A rebellion against globalization and cookie-cutter tours is prompting people to become actors and participants in their trip, not just viewers, turning the experience into something vastly more personal.
  • Many travelers want to connect with locals, not just see them as they whip by on the bus. We want to feel something personal when we travel. We want to be inspired, affected.
  • We want to understand a place from all its angles - the history, culture, arts, traditions, politics. It is no longer enough to skim the surface.
  • Local experiences are an increasing reason why we travel, to understand and experience how local people are living in different places.
  • We want to really know a place. Rather than the banter of a generalist tour guide who has memorized a script, we increasingly want to hear from an expert guide, a historian, a specialist,  a participant, someone who is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about our destination.
  • Experiential travel means shedding stereotypes and meeting people on their own terms, not ours, and not according to the image we may have carried of them. It means being willing to challenge our views and beliefs.
  • Going beyond experiential to transformative travel means that in addition to the personal and authentic connection, we are seeking inner change, such as empowerment or illumination or self-discovery.
  • With this kind of travel, a trip might well be life-changing.

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. 

  • Our money is kept within the community rather than being turned into multinational profits. This isn't a rant against big business and in many cases we'll have to use corporations or foreign companies in our travels. But when we can, we should do our best to go local. Putting money back into the community helps protect the very traditions and lifestyles of the people we have come to see. By finding opportunities at home, people are less anxious to leave to find jobs elsewhere, and communities can survive even in the face of change.
  • Many cultures and traditions are threatened by globalization and development. Our visiting these communities and engaging with their cultures can help strengthen their social fabric, which in turn helps preserve them.
  • Just as we are enriched by connecting with different cultures, I'd like to think they are enriched by connecting with us - as long as we arrive with an open mind, one that is open to change.

Unique travel experiences that qualify as experiential

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:

  • Booking through one of the many platforms  to have dinners with locals
  • How to (try to) live like a local when you travel
  • Using locally owned homestays rather than impersonal commercial accommodation
  • Most walking tours, which take you closer to a place and its people
  • Local tour companies that rely on people who actually live at the destination (my travels to Kyrgyzstan were very much experiential holidays)

A popular type of travel that involves experiences is, of course, women's adventure travel! There are plenty of adventure holidays and luxury adventure travel is also getting on the bandwagon.

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:

  • Slow travel or tourism, which is related to local travel and encourages to get to know one place well rather than several places superficially
  • Themed travel, which provides experiences based on a theme, such as literary travel or culinary travel
  • Bringing your feelings and values into your trip, encouraging you to engage in responsible or ethical travel

Spiritual travel feeds the spirit and easily qualifies as experiential or transformational travel.

Drawbacks of experiential tourism

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!