Jan 11

Experiential Travel – Exploring a More Enriching Way to Move

Learning how to identify bush tucker and track animals with an Aboriginal guide at Monkey Mia, how to be an elephant-training mahout in the Golden Triangle, and learning about Bedouin culture over glasses of tea with a family in their goat-hair tent at Jordan’s Feynan Eco-Lodge are some of our most memorable and meaningful travel experiences of the last few years.

Along with learning about ancient rock art from an indigenous artist in Arnhem Land, how to cook Thai food with a Thai chef in Chiang Mai, how shirts and leather bags are handcrafted on a bespoke walking tour in Rome, what it takes to be a ‘Master Chef’ in a Michelin-starred kitchen, strolling with a shepherd watching his flock and making bread with the village baker in Northern Cyprus, bird-watching from an airboat in remote Bamurru Plains… you get the picture.

What all of these experiences have in common is that we were actively doing things and learning stuff from locals. Rather than just looking at sights, we were interacting with people to learn about their history, country, culture, language, traditions, customs, art and crafts, cuisine, and everyday life. And we came away feeling all the richer because of the experience.

One of the most frustrating aspects of working as guidebook authors has been not having enough time to do more of these things – especially when part of our research for books has been to identify these kinds of experiences, classes, courses and tours – which is another reason why we’re so excited that experiential travel is going to be one of the key focuses of our Grantourismo Project.

For us, the thirst for more authentic local experiences is partly a response to a growing materialism we’ve witnessed on our travels in recent years, and partly the result of our frustration with the globalisation and the homogenization of the world. The more we’ve travelled the more we’ve witnessed things becoming the same, and the more we’ve wanted to search for and experience what’s different and unique about places.

Experiential travel is a growing trend. So much so that even mainstream tours are including something more active in their itineraries, from cooking courses in Venice to flower arranging classes in Tokyo.  Further evidence is the rise of specialised travel businesses such as Viator, Travel Muse and Context, which specialize in offering more meaningful tours, learning activities, and ‘walking seminars’. Not to mention superb magazines such as Dutch publication Ode, about “the people and ideas changing our world for the better”, and San Francisco’s Afar, a new magazine we’ve only just discovered, whose mission is “to inspire and guide those who travel the world seeking to connect with its people, experience their culture, and understand their perspectives”.

We share their goals. Like the Grand Tourists who went to Europe to learn how to speak Italian or French, how to draw or paint, how to fence, play boules or do archery, we’re going to spend our Grand Tour learning and doing things. We’re thinking anything from cooking tajine in Morocco to flamenco guitar in Spain, anything that’s local, that’s special, that gives us an insight into a culture and its people, and helps us in getting under the skin of a place.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on what else we should learn, and find out how you feel about experiential travel. Do you think it’s a growing trend? When was the last time you learned something on a holiday? And have you thought about learning something while on vacation in the coming year? And if so, what? We’d love to hear from you.


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  1. laurenkmcleod

    Hi Lara,

    Great post, it sounds like you guys have been doing some serious travelling! I think one of my favourite travelling experiences was donkey racing through the city centre of Aswan, Egypt. Even though we were stumbling around as if we were 8 months pregnant afterward, it was so much fun, I’d do it again in a second.

    I’m keen to know where else you have been and what activities you did to really “experience” the culture and people, instead of boring, traditional sight-seeing!

    We’re soon to launch an experiential and adventure travel site, to stay updated become a fan of our facebook page http://www.facebook.com/globetrooper

    Looking forward to reading more from you guys this year,

  2. Audrey

    We love trying new foods. And while we spend a lot of time in markets and asking locals about what dishes to try, some of our best food experiences while traveling have been in cooking classes. Getting into a kitchen helps demystify the cuisine and helps you learn the basics of cooking techniques and how to use ingredients. Probably the best course was our first – a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai. We returned home to Prague with a bag full of ingredients and cooking utensils; our friends joked that we ran the best Thai restaurant in town.

    Learning a language while on the road is another great experience, especially if it involves a home stay where you can learn about regular life from inside a home.

    I think experiential travel is becoming more popular, especially for people who are a bit traveled already. There is only so long that seeing temples, churches or museum stays interesting before you want to learn how and why things are done in that country by experiencing it firsthand.

  3. Terence Carter

    Hi Audrey,
    Chiang Mai is a real touchstone for a lot of travellers who are interested in cooking. I’m doing some posts on Thailand’s food this week on my own blog…
    Getting beneath the skin of a city is just what we’re after.
    We love Prague, by the way, Thai food would be the last thing on our minds there, but I don’t blame you for wanting to cook your own! It’s a great cuisine.

  4. Julie

    One of my favorite things to do is visit artists and artisans in their homes or workshops and watch them working in their own environment, talking with them about how they carve statues of saints (in Puerto Rico) or how they hand make dyes for wool (in Mexico).

    I also really enjoy witnessing local politics- rallies and demonstrations offer a quick and intense way of staring to get an understanding about the local power structure and where ordinary citizens fit within it.

    1. Terence Carter

      Yes! We love visiting artists too. Did a lot of it in Australia last year — there is nothing quite like buying a piece of art directly from the artist. In fact, We have a painting by the Aboriginal artist, Thompson, who is showing us the rock paintings in the photograph above.
      I’ve made a habit of going to visit musical instrument makers as well. In Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Italy, I’ve gone to watch (and occasionally buy!) instruments being made. I love that hand-crafted, unique aspect to it, such as the violin-maker in Cremona who only made dozen instruments a year and every day would put one coast of lacquer on the body of a violin for several weeks!
      Funnily enough, we have managed to get tangled up in demonstrations as well, some of them violent such as one in Athens, Greece, which was nasty. We love the passion of peaceful protesters and kind of miss being in one place long enough to get involved in local politics!
      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, I might see if I can rustle up a gallery of musical instrument photos…

  5. Paul K. Sholar

    Just wondering whether you distinguish “experiential travel” from “heritage travel”. I would beware of the former term being mistaken for “adrenaline rush travel”. You are talking about “learn-something-from-the-locals travel”, which is what I like to think that all “heritage travel” is about. I don’t know whether either of these last two terms is more inclusive.

    A couple of comments about foreign experiential travel: This should be mediated by someone who is knowledgeable about the cultural differences, even dangers, that can come into play when trying to teach a foreigner a batch of local knowledge. And be aware of whether the subject matter you’re learning about is exploitive of the locals, or you. It probably requires more than one visit to a place to begin to get a sense of the customs and beliefs, as well as being aware of the materials used by that society, that are the context of what the locals are teaching visitors.

    Also, please encourage Americans to enjoy experiential travel within our own country. It is surprising and gratifying to learn how much grass roots history and know-how exists all around us, especially in ethnic enclaves of cities and in rural settings.

    Paul K. Sholar
    Twitter: @LAUniqueTravel

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Paul – ‘Experiential Travel’ is essentially about travel that is focused on experiences, on going somewhere to do things and learn things, rather than simply to ‘see’ things on a sightseeing tour, or do nothing by lying on the beach. Yes, adventure travel is one of many subsets of experiential travel, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on adrenaline rush-driven activities, it could be as simple as going away to do a cooking course, going on a yoga retreat or heading to Buenos Aires to learn the tango. Often these kinds of activities are driven by locals, but sometimes it might be a foreign academic who is a specialist in an activity or field leading a walking tour (I’m thinking of one of Context’s walks for instance; see http://www.contexttravel.com.)

      We’re treating the theme of ‘living like locals’ as a separate but compatible one, as we appreciate that not everyone wants to go traveling to do/learn things. Some people to just want to kick back and relax. But I guess what we’re encouraging them to do is do it in a local neighbourhood and step outside the tourist zone, so if you’re looking for a bar to hang out at, head for a local pub rather than an over-priced tourist trap, buy your picnic snacks from a local market, a local bistro instead of a hotel restaurant, etc. All of this of course is much more achievable in a rental located in a local neighbourhood than a city centre hotel.

      Heritage travel of course is another subset, focused on learning about the history and culture of a people and place, and might range from a trip exploring the castles of Scotland to one visiting the hill tribes of Thailand, where you rightly point out is best facilitated by local experts so it’s not exploitative.

      As for encouraging Americans to explore their own country, I’m not sure we’re the best people for that job – we’re Australians who have lived in the Middle East since 1998, and Grantourismo is a project we’re doing with a web-based, and therefore global busines, but one with its physical roots in the UK. (Although they also have an American sister company based out of Austin.) We’re firm believers in travel as a way to open minds, broaden horizons, and promote tolerance and understanding, so I’m afraid we’ll be encouraging people to travel overseas more than they currently do, but we certainly see where you’re coming from and we’re often frustrated by Australians who have been to Bali and Thailand but never seen their own country.

      Thanks for your comments!

  6. Jamie

    (I’ve missed the past 2 months, so I’m starting from the beginning….sorry if my comments are delayed!)

    I definitely think experiential travel is becoming more popular, as it should. If I were you, I would seek out local artisans/craft people that are of a fading generation. My best experiences in China were when I could sit and watch 60+ year old women hand embroider the most amazing fabrics.

    Just a thought!

  7. Terence Carter

    Hi Jamie, thanks for the tip – that’s exactly what we’re doing this year – and always have done. For example, last year I visited several oud makers in different Middle Eastern countries as well as violin makers in Cremona, Italy. Bespoke and handmade goods are some of our favourite things.
    This year, we’ve already visited artisans in Morocco and we went to a flamenco guitar maker yesterday – we’ll be blogging about that soon!

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