What is ‘Experiential Travel’?

Experiential travel is bringing unprecedented changes in the travel industry

In the past couple of decades, travel trends have been revolutionized by the evolving priorities of vacationers. An increasing number of tourists are choosing to bid adieu to ‘traditional’ sightseeing, which often takes the form of days spent hopping on and off buses to pose for photographs in front of iconic monuments. The idea of ‘experiential travel’ has taken the world by storm, and is feeding into our wanderlust like never before.

Experiential travel entails immersing yourself in the essence of a travel destination instead of experiencing it superficially. Rather than spreading a vacation thinly over all the desirable aspects of a city or country, vacationers opt to engage deeply with a specific aspect of the place. For example, instead of tasting the local cuisine at a restaurant, experiential travelers seek out the culinary roots of traditional dishes, hoping to comprehend the locals’ lifestyle and their culture.

Why the surge in experience-seekers?

In June 2019, Airbnb introduced ‘Airbnb Adventures,’ where travelers get to ‘ditch the tourist trails and go deeper with wildly unique adventures around the world.’  Earlier this year, the company announced that guest bookings by Generation Z (customers aged 24 or below) for ‘Experiences’ in Thailand increased by 228% year on year, a clear sign that the youngest segment of travelers are increasingly interested in experiential travel. As with most shifts in cultures and trends pertaining to Gen Z and millennials, the growing preference for experiences over souvenirs can, to a large extent, be attributed to social media’s rising influence.

A survey conducted by Schofields, a UK-based holiday rental home insurance provider, revealed that 40.1% of millennials consider the ‘Instagrammability’ of a place to be their top priority when choosing a travel destination. Today, people are keen to post intriguing stories that set them apart from the rest of the social media community. 

Many think of travel as a medium to gain new knowledge, or allow them to recalibrate and gain a new perspective on life. Experiential travel is more of a commitment than conventional travel, but is also considered to be more fulfilling, leaving a lasting impact on the traveler.

The ripples created by experiential travel

In hope of creating this lasting impact,  the role of travel agencies and tour operators has been magnified. Travelers are now anxious to probe into the unseen and unheard, so operators have to work twice as hard to present novel ideas to people in a way that appeals to their adventurous spirit.

The very idea of experiential travel entails impulsiveness and taking a leap of faith. As a result, tour operators have noticed that vacationers are opting to book much closer to their travel date than in previous years. Gavin Tollman, CEO of the tour operator Trafalgar, says that the company’s average booking period dropped from 120 to 150 days, to 60 to 90 days. Tour operators now have to be more flexible in their planning, while also giving clients leeway to wander beyond the breadth of the pre-planned tour.

In addition to benefiting professionals in the tourism industry, experiential travel has encouraged many tour operators to collaborate with locals.  Airbnb’s ‘Experiences’ arm, where travelers can engage in activities ranging from exploring the ancient ruins of Jordan, to uncovering the secrets of the Amazon rainforest, extensively involves local hosts, who handle all the nitty-gritty of the trip. 

Similarly, Asilia, a company that handles safaris and other activities in Tanzania and Kenya, has a package called ‘Asilia Adventures,’ where visitors can pick from a plethora of possibilities, including interacting with tribe members and trekking through the African plains. The benefits of such projects are win-win: locals are initiated into the tourism industry on a larger scale, leading to higher income, and travelers can enjoy the experiences they sought in a more authentic manner.

To ensure an immersive experience, vacationers have gradually been moving away from destination marketing organization (DMO) websites, like [www.nycgo.com] or [www.thisiscleveland.com], toward user-generated content platforms, where they can find unfiltered reviews from people who have already ‘been there and done that.’ 

Collette, a tour operating company, is increasingly favoring user-generated content to authentically market their products and destinations. Operators now attempt to give their customers a glimpse of the unfiltered reality of their dream destination, in the hopes of adding to its originality and allure.

The flip side of new travel trends

Despite the seeming ideality of experiential traveling, this trend has a darker side that is often ignored. Some already consider it misguided to visit a place in the hopes of completely immersing in a particular aspect of it in just a few days or weeks. However, tour operators continue to capitalize on this trend and often hike up their prices, offering customers ‘unique’ experiences that they could actually find by themselves, or at a much lower price.

Experiential travel carries financial costs for the traveler, but also has a cultural cost in some cases. According to Cultural Survival, an organization that works to protect the rights of indigenous populations, a Senegal resort offering tourists the experience of ‘fishing with locals’ banned fishermen from the section of the coast where the resort is located, effectively taking away their livelihood. There is a certain artificiality associated with these experiences: at best, it can be considered a marketing scam; at worst, it leaves a lasting negative impact on the livelihood and culture of the local population.

In addition to creating a false reality in some destinations, experiential travel also contributes to the erosion of environmental ecosystems. The Maldives, a popular island destination, is at increasing risk of being submerged due to rapidly rising sea levels. It is famous for scuba diving and other underwater escapades, but it is losing its pristine charm due to increasing tourist activities. A similar situation can be observed in the extremely fragile continent of Antarctica, which is progressively growing in popularity as a tourist destination for particularly adventurous travelers.

The way forward

Looking ahead, those in the travel industry will have to revamp the way they cater to tourists. Their creativity will be put to the test, as they need to offer the truly remarkable experiences that travelers envision.

In addition to offering more immersive experiences, operators also have to consider the rise in demand for ecotourism. There is increased urgency for tour operators to find a convergence point between sustainability and leisure. Many companies are developing ways to achieve this goal–for instance, Undiscovered Mountains focuses on adventure and activity-oriented holidays in the mountains, while attempting to minimize its carbon footprint. It is part of a carbon-offsetting program with Mossy Earth, a private limited company based in the United Kingdom.

Though the implications of experiential travel on the travel industry are still evolving, one thing is for certain: it will gradually lead to more inter-cultural acceptance and global understanding. As famous travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain once said, “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. […] The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”

Anagha is Jumpstart’s Editorial Assistant.

This story was originally published in Jumpstart Issue 29: Back to Basics as The Search for More Than Meets the Eye.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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