This experiential travel guide is a guide to making sense of one of the most compelling travel trends of recent years – experiential travel. What is experiential travel, why is everybody doing it, and why is experiential travel a deeper, more immersive style of travel?
Experiential travel, as well as slow travel and local travel, are the cornerstones of Grantourismo. When we launched our site and project on New Year’s Eve 2009 with the announcement of our 12-month global grand tour focused on the ‘slow, local and experiential’, and our mission to “make travel more meaningful and memorable”, we predicted that slow travel, local travel and experiential travel would emerge as the most significant forms of travel in the future.
Eight years later, it appears this is the year of experiential travel. The subject of dozens of articles, keynote speeches at major tourism conferences, and white papers by industry researchers, experiential travel has been hijacked by national tourism boards, luxury hotel chains, and multinational tour companies. Experiential travel has become that ‘next big thing’ for tourism marketeers and there’s already a backlash.
The irony was, of course, that for people like us, experiential travel – like slow travel and local travel – represented a rejection of mass tourism and its artificial ‘products’. Experiential travel is about seeking out experiences at a smaller, more local, grassroots level that are more real and (it’s become a loaded term that I’ll tackle here another day) more authentic.
Experiential travel isn’t taking a helicopter up to a chalet on a snow-capped mountain to gaze at New Zealand’s highest peak while a chef cooks lunch – as a luxury lodge arranged for us to do. That’s luxury travel. Experiential travel is about spending time in the mountains with a shepherd as he herds his flock, as his ancestors did for hundreds of years before him, to get an insight into his life – as a small bed and breakfast in a Northern Cyprus village arranged for us to do back in 2006. Lunch? A simple picnic in an olive grove. We also watched the village women make bread at a communal bakery.
We’d already been travelling slowly, locally and experientially for many years before we launched Grantourismo, settling into apartments for months at a time while we wrote guidebooks, taking cooking classes to learn how to make local dishes, doing in-depth walking tours and other experiences to gain greater insights into the places we were settling into through the people we were meeting.
We were writing about those experiences in magazines and our now abandoned personal blogs, but it wasn’t until we had a serious bout of hotel fatigue that we decided to set up a site to tell stories that inspired people to try what for us was a more enriching way to travel. We nutted out our idea in my uncle’s kitchen one night for a 12-month travel project, spending a month in a place, learning things.
We compromised on that yearlong 2010 grand tour after HomeAway, then the world’s number one holiday rental booking website (Airbnb wasn’t on the radar yet) got in touch about a project. Instead, we stayed in apartments and holiday rentals for just two weeks at a time. But as we travelled the world living like locals and connecting with people, we focused on doing and learning things that gave us a deeper experience of places than we could have had in a hotel room for a few days.
That yearlong experience, those forms of travel, and that mission have informed everything that we’ve done since, and that, and the sustainable, ethical and responsible travel ethos that is their foundation, continues to underpin our work – our work as travel and food writers, and Terence as a photographer, here and elsewhere, as well as my work as an itinerary creator, travel planner and trip host.
In all capacities, our aim is always to help enable you to have more immersive travel experiences, to travel at a deeper level, and to go home feeling that you have been more enriched by you travels. And, from the testimonials from participants who have done our tours and retreats, I think we’re succeeding.
I think that gives me the authority (oh, along with an incomplete doctorate project on travel) to set some things straight about experiential travel, what it is, what it isn’t, what it means, why it’s important, and why you even need an experiential travel guide?
Experiential Travel Guide — Our Definitive Guide to Deeper and More Immersive Travel
Our experiential travel guide is a work in progress. We welcome more questions, thoughts, arguments, ideas, and suggestions in the comments below and we’ll incorporate them here.
What is experiential travel?
Experiential travel is rooted in the experience of places in deeper and more immersive ways. It could be by gaining a richer understanding of the context, history, society, nature, art, cuisine, culture, and everyday life of a place and its people through education – which is why doing classes and courses when you travel and going on learning holidays are increasingly popular – or by participating in more hands-on activities, behind-the-scenes tours, interactive experiences, and real moments and events. At its most basic level it’s about seeking out opportunities to actively engage with locals (which is where local travel comes in) in an attempt to scratch the surface and get beneath the skin of place.
How does experiential travel differ to how people usually travel?
Most people go on holiday or vacation to relax – generally by the beach or water or to the countryside or ‘to get back to nature’ – and/or to go sightseeing. The first involves doing as little as possible, while the second involves squeezing as much as they (in)conceivably can into the limited time they have. This is the whirlwind 30 countries in 30 days/”if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium” type holiday, which leaves people little time to think about what they’re seeing, let alone do anything experiential.
There’s nothing wrong with those types of holiday – we all need different types of holidays at different times of the year and different times of our life. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I’d love a beach holiday right now. Experiential travel requires a bit more time and a bit more work – it’s about being more engaged and interacting more, getting hands-on and doing and learning things, and people don’t always want to do that when they’re on holidays.
Isn’t that how everybody travels already?
No, actually. Not since the birth of ‘modern’ travel with the Grand Tour, which began in the early-mid 1700s, when affluent young English men and women set across the English Channel to Paris, the Alps and Italy to educate themselves. They’d go for extended periods to learn about antiquity, the classics and art, to learn Italian or French, archery or boules, how to paint and draw.
But as the brilliant Fred Inglis explains beautifully in The Delicious History of the Holiday all that changed with the discovery of swimming for leisure and the establishment of the seaside as a destination, with the development of the railway, and then the birth of Mass Tourism when Thomas Cook chartered his first excursion train in 1841 and the organised holiday was invented.
So is experiential travel new?
Yes and no. There’s always been an aspect to travel and tourism of enhancing our minds, bodies and spirits – when people go on holidays they take books to read, they get a tan, they do some exercise, they get back to nature. But I don’t think most people have set out to educate and immerse themselves in places to the extent that they are currently doing – not since the Grand Tour. For us, the roots of experiential travel are in the Grand Tour.
What are some examples of experiential travel?
Walking tours, hands-on activities, lessons and courses, language classes, interactive experiences, going behind the scenes – anything that involves learning and doing things, engaging with locals, and immersing yourself in a place. It could be a Paris macaron making class with a chef, a Bangkok street food tour with a foodie, a Sydney architecture walk with an architect, an in-depth walking tour on a subject with an academic, etc.
A great example of experiential travel is the handicrafts and cooking day we did on our recent Vietnam Culinary Tour in Sapa in Northern Vietnam recently with the H’mong woman who taught us batik, embroidery and weaving, and on the break invited our participants into their kitchen to cook lunch with them. Throughout the day we spent with our H’mong guide we learnt about her culture and everyday life. One of the participants said it was the best experience of the whole trip.
So what’s a learning holiday and is that experiential travel too?
Learning holidays are a perfect example of experiential travel. When I created our writing and photography retreats and culinary tours, I crafted the itineraries with our mission of ‘slow, local and experiential travel’ in mind. The retreats enable participants to learn how travel/food writers and photographers create stories on location by kicking off with a full day of writing and photography classes and then providing them with experiences to draw material from. With both our retreats and culinary tours in Cambodia and Vietnam, we introduce participants to locals, taking them into people’s homes and places of work, and going behind the scenes. They also do street food tours and cooking classes, and a Khmer language class.
Other examples include the immersive Japan tours that Australian cookbook author Jane Lawson and her husband have created. The two are Japanophiles who lived in Japan for years and Jane has authored Japanese cookbooks. They offer insider perspectives that provide deeper experiences of Japan. Australian chef Christine Manfield has been offering similar culinary tours to India for seven years. British cookbook writer Fuchsia Dunlop, one of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese cuisines, hosts similar gastronomic tours of China. Aussie food writer/blogger Lorraine Elliott of Not Quite Nigella recently launched a comprehensive culinary tour to Peru.
Of course all of my examples are related to culinary education as that’s one of my biggest passions, but there are immersive trips on everything from handicrafts and textiles to drawing and watercolour holidays with artists. I love the look of the Erin Hill Sketching Holidays and if I had time that’s what I’d be doing.
How do I find experiential travel opportunities?
Try Context Travel, a company specialising in in-depth walking tours around the world with docents – academics, researchers and experts in their field – started by Paul and Lani, a former travel writer and his designer wife. We’ve been doing their walking tours for years and have learnt about everything from the boulevards and arcades of Paris with a researcher doing a PhD on the subject to the cosmopolitan history of Istanbul with a local academic.
Can I create my own experiential travel opportunities?
Absolutely. The woman doing the hard work in the image above is Maria, the caretaker of our holiday rental in Puglia with whom I became close – despite the fact she could barely speak English and my Italian wasn’t much better. I spoke to her in Spanish with what I thought was an Italian accent, and responded in her Puglian dialect. Maria and Terence talked in the language of cooking. Maria would turn up with a pasta board and rolling pin, bags of flour, and bunches of garlic and tomatoes, which she’d hang up in our kitchen, before proceeding to teach Terence how to make the local specialties, orecchiette and wood-fire pizza.
You just have to be open to engaging with locals and letting them teach you new things when you travel. Sometimes you have to overcome the embarrassment of not speaking their language and learn to mime or use rudimentary sign language. At other times, you just have to be prepared to get off your sun-bed and let strangers into your private holiday space. In our case in Puglia it was easy. It was raining, which is why Maria decided to brighten up our days with her pasta board. When she dropped us off at the train station at the end of our stay we hugged and cried.
Click through to read about the many other locals we connected with on that 2010 grand tour and the abundance of things we learnt from them.
Why is there a need for an experiential travel guide?
There’s a lot of misinformation about experiential travel and what it is and a lot of conflation of ideas to do with different types of travel – it’s not adventure travel, for instance, and nor is it local travel, although the two are related. There has also been some backlash with some suggesting that it’s just marketing BS that makes the activity of travel seem superficial. Whereas those of us who sincerely believe it’s a more enriching form of travel see it as doing the converse – for us, it gives travel more meaning.
So is experiential travel just another trend aimed at making travel companies more money?
There will always be travel companies that want to capitalise on the latest trends by incorporating buzzwords into their communications. How could we forget how ‘boutique hotel’ – which is meant to describe a small hotel with an individual style – was disingenuously used by cookie-cutter hotels, that were members of global franchises, to sell their thousand-room properties?
The same hotels are very quick to jump on trends. I remember seeing them market the same colossal properties with their drab rooms that all look the same as your ‘home away from home’ and their concierges as ‘insiders’ with great ‘local’ tips, when in fact they send guests to tourist restaurants that provide kickbacks. I’m not even going to get started on how quick accommodation websites like Airbnb have been to jump on the same trends.
How do I distinguish between those who are and aren’t offering authentic experiential travel opportunities?
Admittedly, it’s difficult if you don’t work in the industry. There are travel companies with cool websites and loads of money that create what looks like fantastic experiential travel ‘products’, as they call tours and packages in the industry. But then we’ve tested them out and the guide has just been a generalist guide with no specialised skills and it’s a standard tour that anybody could offer.
Do thorough research and look beyond the usual travel companies and look for experts who are hosting tours and holidays and offering classes and courses instead, like the people I mentioned above. Look for chefs, cookbook authors, artists, and travel and food writers and photographers like ourselves, and I imagine there must be a whole lot of other specialists out there, from historians to archaeologists, architects to designers, who are offering deeper experiences of the places they know and love.
The Delicious History of the Holiday by Fred Inglis
The Tourist, a New Theory of the Leisure Class by Dean MacCannell
Touring Cultures, Transformations of Travel and Theory edited by Chris Rojek and John Urry
Let us know what else you’d like to cover in this experiential travel guide and we’ll address it. We’d also love to hear your thoughts on experiential travel.
If you found this useful, you might also like these other posts on slow, local and experiential travel.