The very essence of travel has always been about seeking unique and memorable experiences. However, in recent years, we have become ever so dissatisfied with the same old well-trodden tourist trails. More than ever before, we are actively seeking to expand our horizons and dive deeper beyond the worn pages of a guidebook. We have developed a near-insatiable thirst to wander unique pathways and to connect with local cultures and real people. Rather than merely sightseeing or ticking off popular bucket-list itineraries, our travel plans are made with the desire to authentically immerse ourselves within a destination.
It is no surprise that experiential travel is the most significant, systemic trend in worldwide tourism today. The term ‘experiential travel’ typically refers to the idea of having a more immersive, local, authentic and/or active travel experience. While travel is inherently experiential by definition, how we travel and what we want from our bursts of nomadic living has seen a dramatic shift over the last decade.
For many of us, experiences now far outweigh material possessions, and alongside this thirst for seeing the world is a global demand for travel that resonates on a deeper emotional level, more than a mere physical level. More than mere consumers, we seek to navigate our own journey and emerge at the other end transformed in a significant and memorable way.
This exciting shift is driving the travel industry to become more adventurous, more personalized, and more attuned to what makes each destination unique as they strive to convey a meaningful experience to travellers in a short period of time.
The notion of the pre-packaged travel brochure has long seen its heyday. The hunt is now on for an experience that is unique, enriching and as far from the beaten path as possible. The one-size-fits-all package is now no longer appealing or relevant to the modern savvy consumer. Rather than sit by a pool with cocktail in hand, we want to have life-fulfilling journeys that closely align with our own personal values. Where travellers once talked about what they saw or did on a vacation, we now focus more intently on whom we met on the road and how a journey offered us a new worldview from which to ponder our own life and existence.
Earlier this year, Airbnb launched ‘experiences’ which are offered alongside the overwhelming amount of popular holiday rentals. This addition to the platform allows you to not only select your vacation property from any far-flung destination around the world, but to also choose from a diverse range of activities in that region, all offered by the local community. These can range from making crepes in Paris, to a graffiti tour of Barcelona, to a fabric workshop in Mexico, to a DIY tattoo session in Shanghai, to photography cycling tours through Prague and anything and everything in between.
Holiday companies around the world are following suit, expanding their offerings to meet this new demand. Travellers can try chocolate making in St. Lucia, sunrise yoga on a sandbank in the Maldives and street food safaris in Vietnam. Across the board, companies are creating fresh appeal for modern travellers by opening up opportunities where they can connect with local people. Whereas traditionally hotels have always devised ways to tempt their guests to stay within the hotel grounds to maximize revenue, the boom in experiential travel has encouraged hotels to act more like community portals, introducing guests to popular local experiences outside the realm of the hotel boundaries.
The Millennial demographic, perhaps more than any other, are driven by exotic locales and hands-on, adventure activities that push their boundaries and offer both transformational and also ‘insta-worthy’ moments. While there is a great deal of focus on Millennial travel trends, older generations are also driving significant demand for more experiential and adventurous travel options. The modern traveller, regardless of age, wants to forge deeper connections to the people, traditions and customs of the places they are visiting, adding a more meaningful and memorable component to their vacation. Travel companies are witnessing rising trends for new and more remote destinations within Asia, South America and Africa. This older generation of travellers are also inspired by personal interests; it’s not about seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Colosseum, it’s about learning how to make homemade tiramisu or stomping grapes during harvest season.
In the luxury segment, travel has become more focused on total curation and customization. Guests are encouraged to craft their own itineraries and high-end hotels and luxury travel companies are letting go of strict timetables and pre-determined plans to allow travellers to set their own agendas. If money is no issue, savvy travellers can create the most exclusive journey tailored to their wildest dreams; from Porsche ice-rally driving in Sweden, to luxury sea-kayaking trips around Indonesia in search of legendary komodo dragons, or a designer glamping safari tour along the Congo River from Kisangani to Kinshasa. Wealthy vacationers have often been the pioneers of adventurous travel into emerging destinations, proving again that adventure and experiential travel is not only for hearty youth, willing to risk life and limb for heart-stopping thrills.
The concept of experiential travel has also dramatically reshaped the wellness industry. The days of massage and wheatgrass shots have been surpassed by life-changing wellness journeys, meticulously crafted and seamlessly executed. Health and yoga retreats have dramatically multiplied in recent years as the demand for combining an exotic vacation with a healthy holiday has skyrocketed. At the click of a button we can browse a plethora of five star Ayurvedic resorts in India, exotic health spas in Thailand, guided luxury treks through Nepal or yoga sailing expeditions through the Greek islands. Popular health resort Six Senses, has recently introduced new multi-lodge wellness circuits that offers roaming wellness journeys that are set to redefine the wellness travel experience like never before.
So, what’s driving this new era of experiential travel? Chances are you have already guessed correctly. The dramatic interest in experiential travel can be primarily accredited to the predominance of social media in our modern lives. More than ever before, we are connected. We are acutely aware of what is going on around the world, we communicate daily with people in various time zones, we are bombarded with tens of thousands of images every single day; our horizons have dramatically expanded, primarily through the screens we are attached to and subjected to 24/7.
The frenetic nature of modern society induces a sense of urgency and desire. The rise of FOMO – the popular acronym for ‘fear of missing out’ – has driven us to want more, need more, and experience more, now. Driven and steered by social media, we are constantly searching for inspiration, gratification and happiness in unique ways. With our horizons broadened, experiential travel has stepped in, luring us to faraway lands. We are not only influenced by the happy travel snap shots offered by close friends and family. We are powerfully swayed and coerced through our infatuation with social media celebrities. Images of distant lands, people and cultures infiltrate our news feeds and inadvertently, our minds. Cliché vacations to Bali or Mexico no longer hold our interest when we are presented with glamping tents in Morocco, underwater hotels in the Maldives, clifftop cabins in Patagonia or luxury treehouses in the desert plains of Kenya. Digital nomads, millennials, Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers alike are all dialed into these latest travel trends which inspire cultural immersion far beyond the traditional UNESCO World Heritage Site lines.
When presented with these incredible global image hooks we have the means to search, click and book in moments. Platforms such as Bookings.com, Tripadvisor, Airbnb, and Sky Scanner have taken the power out of the travel agents hands, and delivered it directly to us, the consumer. But even as we roam further off the grid, we still want to stay connected. We want to update our status through our real-time experiences. With live Instagram stories, location pins, shared hashtags, and ‘checking in’ on Facebook, social media has become our publicly accessible travel diary and is an integral part of the modern travel experience.
The influence of experiential travel has also come to infiltrate our regular daily lives. No longer are we content with grabbing a coffee from Starbucks; we want to visit our local roaster, perch on handmade crate furniture and know which village the organic coffee beans have been ethically sourced from. No longer do we enjoy a glass of wine at home with our girlfriends; we want to visit the winery, do a tasting course, pick the grapes and understand the fermentation process. No longer do we eat out at the restaurant down the road; we take a Sunday drive to a free range farm where we pick our own greens from the garden, smell the bread baking and watch the chooks peck seed meters from our communal table. As we become tourists in our own cities, there are limitless ways to engage in experiential travel, whether it’s for a month, a week, a weekend or an hour.
If this trend is anything, it is optimistic. It proves that as a society, we want to connect, explore and broaden our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and one another. It proves that we want to push our boundaries and that we want more than the 9-5 with the annual family camping trip. It proves that we are drawn towards new horizons and that we are inherently programed to transform. It proves we want to be more than mere consumers on a predetermined path and we want to create our own journeys that we can filter and hashtag accordingly. It proves that we want more than mere stamps in our passport. It proves that we want to look back on our life, and be deeply moved by the people, places and journeys that we experienced.
Kelly Alexander is a passionate yoga teacher, plant-based chef and writer who has traveled and worked extensively across the world in health resorts, detox centers, raw food restaurants and wellness retreats. Kelly completed her 200hr yoga teacher training in Byron Bay, Australia in 2008 with Rachel Zinnman. She has a Raw Chef certification, is a qualified Holistic Health Coach, a published author and has a degree in Media & Creative Writing. A nomadic traveler and lover of nature, you are most likely to find Kelly upside down on her yoga mat, chasing a sunrise, or wandering through a local farmers market on the hunt for new culinary inspiration.
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DEEP ECOLOGY of WELLNESS: Weaving the love of yoga and travel with regenerative lifestyle design.