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What is experiential travel?

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Experiential travel is the one of the latest trends in the travel and tourism industry. Increasing in popularity, this type of tourism is often viewed as ‘good’, frequently facilitating niche tourism or sustainable tourism endeavours. But what actually is experiential travel and what is it all about? Read on to find out….

What is experiential travel?

Put simply, experiential travel is travel that focuses on experiences first. It is a world away from spending a week lying on a beach or around a pool – though of course there is nothing wrong with tourism like this, and it’s something we all need from time to time! Experiential travel is also known as immersion travel. This is because people (tourists) are fully immersing themselves in a particular culture or a certain place – whether that be a specific site or a general country.

When travelling in this way, tourists will actively seek out and engage in things that make the place what it is. This includes eating local food, learning about the history of a place, speaking to the people who live there and so on. Experiential travel is very often transformative for people.

Where did experiential travel come from?

Nobody particularly invented experiential travel. Since the dawn of time (almost…) people have been travelling from their hometown to another place, and taking the time to engage with and learn about that destination. However, the concept does have a name now. Experiential travel has been likened to the concept of experiential education (which I discuss in my article on educational tourism), which was first discussed by John Dewey in his 1938 book Experience and Education.

Dewey was an educator and philosopher. says, “John Dewey is probably most famous for his role in what is called progressive education. Progressive education is essentially a view of education that emphasizes the need to learn by doing. Dewey believed that human beings learn through a ‘hands-on’ approach. This places Dewey in the educational philosophy of pragmatism.

Pragmatists believe that reality must be experienced. From Dewey’s educational point of view, this means that students must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn. Dewey felt the same idea was true for teachers and that teachers and students must learn together. His view of the classroom was deeply rooted in democratic ideals, which promoted equal voice among all participants in the learning experience.”

So, experiential travel is a similar type of thing. It was first mentioned itself in 1985, in a book called Insights in Strategic Retail Management by John Gattorna. The concept was described as being “where the destination is not as important as the experience which can be had there”. And this is exactly what it is!

Why is experiential travel on the rise?

Inner Mongolia Itinerary

People are looking more and more towards ‘doing’ things while travelling, rather than spending time just switching off and relaxing. But why is this? There are many reasons, including wanting to gain new knowledge and also emulate experiences we may have seen in films, on TV and on social media or blogs. But overall, there is an evident movement by consumers away from the traditional sun, sea and sand holiday model towards more unusual and immersive forms of travel.

And people don’t just want to have an immersive experience, they want to share it with the world too! UK-based holiday home insurance provider Schofields ran a survey that showed that 40.1% of ‘millennials’ consider whether or not a place is Instagrammable as their top priority when choosing and booking holiday destinations. People like to post stories and images that make them stand out from the rest of the crowd. Be that their friends, fans or just general social media followers!

insta tourism. experiential travel

Especially following the pandemic, people are really looking to get out and *do something*. Adventures are good for the soul, a chance to make memories and really live. For many, it feels like there hasn’t been a lot of chance to live over the past couple of years. So heading to a new and exciting destination and trying new activities, meeting new people, tasting new foods… it’s invigorating!

How is experiential travel marketed?

Experiential travel is rarely given this title when it is being sold. It is repackaged and relabelled, often called ‘adventure travel’ or ‘experience travel’. Scott Dunn, a luxury travel brand, is one company that do market this type of travel as being experiential. They describe it as being ‘immersive, adventurous and authentic. A journey that gets you beneath the skin of a culture to experience life as a local. That could mean thrifting with a fashion designer in Milan or dining with a food blogger in Cape Town. In a work hard, play hard world, we design trips that challenge your perspective to encourage you to rethink your relationship with people and places’.

Experience Travel Group, which offers experiential travel throughout destinations across Asia, describe it as ‘boutique holidays for curious travellers’. And travel group Exodus offer adventure holidays, which boils down to experiential travel. They say “there’s something about the feeling of visiting a new country, culture or environment – whether that’s a mountain range, desert or jungle – that just can’t be beaten”.

Anything that is marketed as an adventure will be a chance to try experiential travel. Essentially if you’re not lying on a sunbed drinking cocktails and perusing the buffet for 2 weeks, your trip is probably some kind of experiential travel… or at least it can be!

Examples of experiential travel 

Inner Mongolia Itinerary. experiential travel

Because the term experiential travel is broad, it naturally encompasses many different types of tourism and holidays that come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. A tourist might achieve an immersive experience by staying in a homestay and getting to know the local people and culture or they might choose to donate their time by taking a volunteer tourism trip. Travelling to places that are off the beaten path, such as Inner Mongolia or the Chinese Silk Road can be a great way to ensure that you have an immersive experience too.

Other ways that tourists might choose to experience experiential travel might by climbing Mount Toubkal or diving in Dahab. They might do a road trip through Canada or take a city break to Shanghai. Visiting these places and taking these trips doesn’t entirely make your experience one of ‘experiential travel’, however. It’s all about getting under the surface. So when you’re away on a city break, you might take a cooking class or a food tour- choose this rather than just heading to the city’s most popular restaurants or ask for ‘off the beaten track’ recommendations from locals, from taxi drivers, from shop assistants etc.

How to make your trip more experiential

Experiential travel is a about immersion. There are many, many ways that you can be immersed in the local culture and way of life! Here are a few examples:

  • Book a homestay or use a housesitting app – find out more about homestays here!
  • Take a walking tour led by a local
  • Book a cooking class making local dishes
  • Eat at independent restaurants 
  • Join in with a community-improvement activity such as a beach clean up
  • Experience local entertainment like a gig, football game or theatre show
  • Speak to as many people as you can
  • Use local/independent taxi firms rather than Uber
  • Do some volunteer work
  • Stay in the destination for an extended length of time e.g. through slow tourism
  • Get off the beaten path

Why is experiential travel a good way to see the world?

Experiential travel is so good for you. It helps broaden your horizons and teach you new things: you might learn a language, pick up some new recipes, learn the history of a culture you may not have even heard of before. It can change your perspective on things when you see the way other people live. A huge part of it is letting go of the stereotypes you might have (consciously or subconsciously) created in your mind about a community, a place, a certain group of people. Be willing to change your beliefs!

experiential travel

Experiential travel is also brilliant for local communities. Visiting a small, family-run restaurant rather than a chain, for example, ensures that your tourism dollars are benefiting real, local people and prevents economic leakage in tourism. This in turn helps to protect the culture we are absorbing on our travels. And visiting local communities, especially small tribes such as the Long Neck Tribe in Thailand, helps prevent globalisation and development in a way. By spending the time travelling to places to (respectfully) see and interact with these groups, tourists can help communities to achieve positive economic and social outcomes.

Further reading

If you have enjoyed this article I am sure that you will love these too:

Ethical tourism: Everything you need to know

The human zoo | A simple explanation

Are zoos ethical? The pros and cons of visiting the zoo

Volunteer tourism: Everything you need to know