Experiential travel: new horizons for the luxury traveler

Experiential travel is no new concept, though the term pops up with renewed significance and frequency of late. Backpackers and adventurers have long been exploring unchartered or little known destinations for the personal growth, satisfaction and self-realization that come with the profound impact of extraordinary experiences or overcoming internal and external obstacles. As globalization brought the world ever closer, exotic and intriguing locations became more accessible and unexplored frontiers became a rarity. Now it is the luxury traveler (for whom two weeks on the trail without running water or a mattress may have been a little too much experience) that bears the new flag for experiential travel.

Gary Mansour, founder of Mansour Travel with offices in Beverly Hills and Cannes, agrees. Already in 2006 Monsour identified ‘experiential travel’ and the demand for ‘authenticity’ as rising trends with his A-list clientele of celebrities and corporate VIPs alike. The trend has only grown since then, and today the general consensus sees the movement continuing to gain momentum with luxury travelers.

Numerous tour operators, agents and organizations caught on to this trend in recent years, and the luxury traveler now benefits from virtually unlimited choice. Luxury operators such as Abercrombie & Kent have offered personal guides and itineraries to far-flung destinations with insider access for years without the label of ‘experiential travel’. African safaris and Arctic explorations, for example, have become ever more popular and accessible; yet now, a new class of agents and organizations dedicated to experiential travel emerges in the luxury travel industry. Witness the rise in popularity and importance of the PURE Life Experiences conference in Marrakech this month (1st-4th November 2011), bringing together nearly a thousand travel industry experts, journalists, and private travel designers from across the globe (by invitation only) to network and discuss every aspect of experiential and ‘transformational travel’ as they also refer to it. Some of the new experiences promoted this year include yacht-based heli-skiing and former KGB agents and cosmonauts for tour guides.

Experiential travel clearly comes in different forms for different people. Some may find time spent with locals in the squalor of an Indian slum a life changing and enlightening experience, for example, while others will come away from the same experience with a disturbing feeling of unbalanced sadness. Some climb mountains for the sense of personal achievement and connection with nature, while others access a similar connection through solitary meditation in a peaceful place of beauty. But all experiential travelers seem to seek meaning and understanding in themselves and the world around them through engaging journeys. They relish the memories of experiences that changed their lives or perceptions.

This fact explains the increasing variety of experiential travel itineraries. Remote destinations in Southeast Asia, South Africa and the Arctic, for example, will continue to entice; however, it’s not necessary to journey so far (or indeed, sleep in a tent or compromise your safety) in order to realize personal insight or transformation. Americans have vast and impressive landscapes to discover themselves in without leaving the country, and Europe contains more cultural diversity within a relatively small area than perhaps any other continent on Earth, allowing Europeans engaging and authentic cultural encounters in their own backyards. From the Dordogne to Tuscany, and Andalusia to the foothills of Bulgaria, numerous European destinations offer unimagined opportunities beneath the well-tread surface.

Nor is it strictly necessary to book an adventure through a major operator. In fact, many of the emerging agents and operators dedicated to experiential travel seem to be small businesses. Often times, careful research or recommendations from trusted agents reveal specialist local operators and even reputable private villa owners themselves who are in a prime position to offer the most authentic local experiences and access.

A sampling of near-flung experiential outings in Andalusia alone:
– Push your limits with a climb or hike in the mountains and ponder the nesting place of eagles or the mating place of other rare birds.
– Join a goat herder on a days trek through the hills.
– Partake in grape or olive harvests and the winemaking or milling process with the experts.
– Explore the blend of cultures through an in depth discovery of the cuisine, including a private culinary course.
– Take a beginner’s lesson in bullfighting or flamenco dancing.
– Join conservation efforts with locals in a national nature reserve.
– Open range excursions and adventure sports.
– Sit in silence and let the nature of the place guide your thoughts.
– Reflect on the encounters with private spa treatments and a luxurious bed at the end of the day.

Above all, intermingling in meaningful ways with locals, tasting their way of life, trying to understand their point of view and reconciling contradictions with one’s self, stepping out of one’s comfort zone and into a new realm, these are some of the foundations of transformational travel. And many experiential travelers would advise, don’t try too hard to organize everything in advance or set rigid expectations; after all, experiential travel really is about encountering the unknown, reflecting on the experience and melding it into your working personal philosophy on life and living.

Alan Hazel is Owner and Director of Cortijo El Carligto.

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