What you will learn
- What is experiential travel (and what it is not)
- Why now is the best time for this travel style
- What you’ll need to enjoy this way of traveling
The term experiential travel is a new name for something timeless.
It is also known as immersion travel, a form of tourism which focuses on experiencing a country, city or particular place by connecting to its history, people and culture. (1)
To better understand what is experiential travel, we’ll contrast it with what it is not: mass tourism – canned experiences, familiar yet bland food and all inclusive resorts that shelter us from venturing too far out of our comfort zone.
We’ll explore why now is a great time to travel the experiential way, and we’ll see what the basic ingredients and requirements are needed to make your next trip an amazing, deep, cultural experience.
A timeless original
A lot of people have been practicing experiential travel for years. It would start with a curious mind that likes to question and a visit to a new country for a job or to see a friend. There, having local connections would provide the first opportunity to get a taste of the wonderful delight that is to dive deep into a new culture, explore all the beautiful tapestry of nuances and witness the playful intermingling of history, culture, and people.
As we start down the path of experiential travel, it’s often an unconscious decision.
Sometimes it’s a matter of convenience: it makes sense to rely on a local instead of doing all the research ourselves – research that wasn’t so easy to do before the internet.
We would trust our friend or relative to show us what they deemed worthy, or we would just hang out. Little we knew that “just hanging out” was a gateway deep into a new culture where a traveler can be both an observer and a participant. There, people are themselves, and we see how spend their free time, how they see the world, what are their fears and what they are passionate about. So simple yet so powerful – and overlooked by most.
In other cases, an inquisitive mind that wants to understand why people do what they do would will push a traveler to go out of their way to meet locals – and not just the tour guides – to see what they real people are like and what drives them. This approach require a certain personality type.
More recently, as experiential travel is becoming a trend, tour operators and app developers are trying to cater to – and cash in on – a concept that does not yet have a single well-defined meaning. Charmed by pictures on Instagram or an inspiring article, novice travelers set out to explore their own definition of experiential travel.
Millennials, who get a lot of bad press for their bratty reputation are also questioning by nature. Their desire to understand is what’s pushing experiential travel from an emerging concept into a growing trend that is changing the travel industry.
Why now is the best time to go Experiential
As this emerging form of travel is finding a term to rally around (some people prefer “Experiential Travel” while others rather use “Cultural Travel”), it is slowly seeping into our collective consciousness. Veteran experiential travelers have joined novices – many of whom don’t yet fully understand its meaning – and are pushing the travel industry to make it easier to plan and book trips that provide a more authentic experience of a culture and a country. (Some would argue that when an experience is planned, it loses its authenticity, but it’s all relative)
While the internet makes it easier to find information about logistical matters like where to stay, how to stay safe and what to do, review sites let you crowdsource the knowledge & experience of travelers who came before you to determine if a hotel, restaurant or attraction is good or bad.
There are online communities that make it easy to meet locals who are willing to show you around and take you into their culture. Most communities are free to join, while there are apps that let you book one on one guided tours with general or specific topics for a reasonable fee. This experience could be a foodie tour of Paris, an underground visit of Budapest or an architectural photography tour of Istanbul.
Flights are also more affordable, and tools are available to search and customize itineraries without relying on travel agents. Airbnb is giving hotels a run for their money and is moving to include experiential components into their business model.
With all these tools and information at our disposal, it’s easier than every to plan a trip with as little or as much experiential and cultural component as we desire.
Open mind needed
With the increasing number of opportunities for incredible experiences, one simple requirement remains and is often overlooked: an open mind.
It doesn’t matter what a wonderful, enriching opportunity lies in front of you, if your mind is not open to it, it will be lost on you. Sadly, many lack a healthy dose of self-awareness.
As traveling is not cheap, the largest groups of travelers come from large wealthy countries where the local media often portrays a one-sided and little-nuanced view of both the country of origin – as being the best – and foreign countries – as being inferior and backward – and this can give their citizen unreasonable biases. In TV series and movies, visible minorities are often portrayed as one-dimension clichés. There biases that are reinforced with the natural but outdated human tendency of viewing people in two groups: us and them. And fearing the “them”.
Veteran travelers enjoy mocking these novice travelers as dumb, narrow-minded but it’s rarely their fault. An open minded is a result of both the environment and life experiences.
To break the stereotypes, there is an empathy gap, and it needs to be bridged. The person taking the role of the teacher must not only understand the erroneous view of the learner but also understand where they are coming from so the explanation can be tailored to their worldview – this helps to know what example will resonate best.
Human being as creatures of habit for whom change doesn’t come easy. As with any skill, expanding our comfort zone and adapting to a new environment gets easier with practice. For many, given the hard work of balancing work, life, and family, by the time it comes to a vacation they want something simple and effortless. Little they realize that experiencing a new culture through new friends, although not as effortless as lying on a beach, can me thousand fold more rewarding and reinvigorating.
Experiential travel is easier to achieve than ever before, for those willing and interested. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for many travelers, it’s their travel style, they just don’t know it yet.
All you need is an open mind and a willingness to get out of your comfort zone.
What’s the reward? Beside better travel experiences and amazing memories that stay with you, learning to appreciate different points of view is useful in many scenarios at home, not just abroad – interacting with colleagues, neighbors or strangers who may hold the same passport but may have a drastically different point of view.
The empathic, curious and nonjudgmental approach that serves a traveler well is a mindset that might just be the secret sauce helps us build better relationships and stronger communities.
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