The wonders of modern technology, specifically the modern forms of transportation, are at once a gift and curse to the traveler. The ability to go almost anywhere in the world in less than day would be science fiction if we weren’t so accustomed to it. Less than 200 years ago most people would have scoffed at the notion as a dream. It is a gift born of human ingenuity. But today, worldwide travel is often just another ubiquitous business expense or family holiday.
This freedom of movement has a dark side, however. One that is based on the commercialization of destinations by the tourism industry. Cities are explored for a day, two at most. Museums, churches, and castles become little more than items on a checklist. Views of a city are pre-packaged and fed to us as we follow the same worn out bootprints on to the next town, the next vista, the next continent.
Our trips are so often like stones skipping across the water: destination to destination, our experiences little more than ripples on the surface. This is satisfying in its own way; I’ve had my share of “around Europe in two weeks” trips and I loved every minute of them. But many travelers – myself included – seek a different experience.
Is it that the more you travel the less satisfied you become with simply seeing a place? Is there a continuum of contentment upon which travelers move from “seeing” to “experiencing” the more they travel?
A few things happened that snapped some answers into place. First, my parents gave my wife a book for Christmas titled “The 100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life.” I flipped through the book and thought almost every trip was very cool. It dawned on me that what I’m looking for in travel is not just a place to go, but a place to go and learn. The introduction (or was it the back cover?) contained a phrase that really hit home: experiential travel. In an industry where niche is everything, I had found mine.
Second, I recently read a study that investigated the classification of travel into four different types of experience: entertainment, esthetics, education, and escapism. I found this particularly interesting given my new-found mission. Here’s how the study identified these experience categories:
- Education, aka active absorption. Experiences are actively absorbed as a mental state. Examples given in the study include visiting art galleries or wineries since they can “increase your ability to be a connoisseur.”
- Esthetics, aka passive immersion. These experiences appeal to the senses. While you’re engaged in this experience, your mind is immersed in the environment but it isn’t engaged in the same way as educational experiences. Examples include walking along a creek or visiting a historical site. Passive appreciation without active involvement is the bottom line.
- Escapism, aka active immersion. Escapist experiences are those in which you have an effect on the outcome of an activity. For example, camping and playing golf.
- Entertainment, aka passive absorption. In other words, you are an observer and have no effect on the experience. Attending a concert is a good example.
Ok, so why I did just bust out my Psych BA all crazy like? While I’m not entirely sold on this framework, it has given me a different perspective on the constituent components of a trip, and perhaps you’ll find some value in it (see it graphed here). I think most people seek to achieve a balance of these four experiences when they travel, but I know I tend toward a lot of “esthetics” and find “education” to be the most rewarding long-term.
You might be thinking, “Isn’t all travel experiential?” And I’d have hard time disagreeing with you. I don’t particularly like the term. It has an edge of snobbery, and it’s awfully broad. I’ve already found multiple definitions; some equate it with adventure travel while others chalk it up to volunteering or WWOOFing. The definition I like best, and the one that fits what I aim to do, comes from AFAR magazine’s website:
What is experiential travel? Experiences that connect you with the essence of a place and its people…simply seeing the sights is no longer enough. Experiential travelers want to venture beyond the beaten tourist paths and dive deeper into authentic, local culture, connecting with people from other cultures in ways that enrich their lives and create lasting memories.
Sounds like the kind of experience most people would like out of their travels, right? But how do you do that? Stick around here and and follow me as I learn the hard way. It’s going to be an interesting year.
In the meantime, have you gone on experiential travels? Help me out and share your experience!
9AE7YBWUJNZF Original photo: by Zach Dischner