For various reasons I was recently invited to a conference in Bermuda. There were almost 300 tourism delegates from all the Caribbean Islands in attendance. The topic was “sustainability.” That’s a good topic for many of the islands to discuss. Those high peaked islands formed by volcanoes are doing OK, but as the Minister of Tourism from the (flat) Bahamas said to me: “One day soon we will be under water, which is bad for tourism.” Yes, I guess so. However, the conference topic that interested me most was “experiential travel,” which was all the rage that year. Everyone is doing it, I was told.
Here’s how the keynote speaker defined the term. Most tourists buy a vacation package that includes air and hotel. Some go further and buy an “all inclusive” trip, which is industry jargon for “booze is included.” Most tourists will buy some souvenirs, likely handicrafts or clothing. If the resort is very clever, they will host a marketplace where local vendors sell their handicrafts at the resort. That way, the tourist is kept at the resort in order to maximize profit. Many resorts will also upsell their customers with “extras” such as tours, concerts, and fishing trips. That money also goes straight to the resort.
The phrase “experiential travel” refers to yet another upsell. Rather than simply going fishing, let’s say you get to meet the boat captain Jose who helps you catch the fish in a secret spot only he knows. Then you go to the dock or his house and meet his wife, who cooks the fish at a family barbeque. She might even share the recipe with you, including the secret sauce. If the resort is very clever, they will shoot video footage of the day for a DVD, and include booze in the overall fee. If you have a wonderful time and a few drinks, maybe you share email addresses with Jose and his wife and stay in touch. A good time is had by all, and the resort removes $699.00 (U.S.) from your credit card for this wonderful “experience.” Jose gets a small slice of the action and the rest goes to the resort.
In this fashion the resort has increased its usual profit 10 times over from what the typical tourist might have paid for a t-shirt and a useless seashell souvenir that sounds like the ocean. The tourist has had a great “experience” and has actually escaped the beach/pool/swim-up bar for a day. Jose has $50 today that he didn’t have yesterday, and $50 is a large amount for a poor fisherman in the Caribbean. So what’s the problem with this experience?
Nothing, except most of the money goes to the resort owners. The village where Jose lives gets nothing. Many of the villagers work at the resort for a minimal wage, and they have to pay to send their kids to school. Likely they have to buy school uniforms for their kids, and lunches as well. The schools receive nothing from this kind of tourism. On most islands the government has little money for public education. Most tourists stay at secluded resorts where they rent the sunshine and seldom (if ever) get to meet the villagers who serve them their fancy meals. It’s a profitable system for the resorts, which is why tourism organizations schedule conferences where delegates can go to learn this new development, on a working holiday where they get to dress up and visit other islands and enjoy fine meals just like the customers they hope to entice.
Afterward the conference I got to meet with the keynote speaker. Had she ever heard of the phrase “transformative travel” before? No, she replied, she had not. At that time the phrase was new to the industry, although these days hip magazines and websites will explain the meaning to you. As of this article (2017) “transformative travel” is being described in Vogue Magazine as the new major travel trend for 2017. Here’s the opening grafs from their article:
“Experiential travel” became the travel trend of 2016. Rather than just visiting far-flung locations, vacationers were looking for ways to tap into native cultures, meaningfully interact with locals, and feel like far more than a tourist. So where does a thoughtful traveler go from there? What’s next?
Industry leaders are saying that “transformational travel” is the next evolution. It has similar elements of experiential travel, but taken a step further—it’s travel motivated and defined by a shift in perspective, self-reflection and development, and a deeper communion with nature and culture.
Being as it’s Vogue, a magazine about trends and styles that are in fashion, they only got some of the story right. Trends come and go, you see. Some people like to follow what’s “hot” for some reason, to do what everybody else is doing. If you are interested in changing your life for the better, following what other people are doing is not going to do the trick. Transformational travel goes much deeper than that.
The Vogue definition refers to “a deeper commitment with nature and culture.” That’s great to hear. Given that I have been practicing what used to be called “meaningful travel” for two decades, I understand that there is much more to “transformation” than visiting with the locals or sinking deeper into your trip than museums and restaurants. Saving wildlife and preserving cultures are great too. But all these definitions have one thing in common. They are all about “self,” about you the traveler. Yes, you may get transformed by your experience, but what about the people you are meeting. What’s in it for them? When you visit communities around the world and meet local people, in essence you are taking something of them with you. You are learning and gaining. What about paying some of that back? The question is: Who is being transformed? Is it just the traveler or do the locals get a slice of the action?
People go on trips, vacations and adventures for many reasons. One common denominator is to escape from the normality of home, routine, boredom, and work. Travelling to a new destination makes everything new. It’s exciting. You get to see the world with fresh eyes. If you have enough money you can go anywhere and do anything. There is another common denominator though. Whether you are looking for fun or escape, your experience is all about you. If you are looking for a meaningful experience, to tap into native cultures, a deeper communion with nature, it’s still all about yourself.
The “personal growth” industry has thrived for decades by people looking to “find themselves” through trips to exotic or spiritual destinations, hoping that by touching a certain monument or meditating in a specific location will help them achieve their goals. What, exactly, are they looking for? If they are like most people, they are searching for some form of happiness. The younger traveler will look for ecstasy or joy; the older for bliss or contentment. They hope those feelings, missing from their home lives, can be found elsewhere, hidden away like buried treasure. What these seekers-after-happy don’t seem to realize is that happiness is never found by chasing it, even to the ends of the wordl. The vacuum is found within.
It is quite possible to change your life by falling in love, whether with a place or a person, on your journey through life. It is quite possible to transform yourself through a profound experience, whether good or bad. Being arrested for drugs in many countries will profoundly change your life, although not in a positive manner. It is NOT possible to transform yourself by only focusing on yourself. Happiness is found outside of your own little world. It is found by helping others.
Every spiritual leader throughout history has shared the same message. The Golden Rule in Christianity is “do unto others as you would have them done to yourself.” That comes from the King James version of the Bible. In modern terms, that might be described as “treat people the way you want to be treated.” Or, as Mahatma Ghandi said: “BE the change you want to see in the world.” You transform yourself when you help other people enjoy a better life. “T’is better to give than to receive.”
The question becomes, therefore, not a question of when, where, what or why? HOW do you do this, whether on an annual holiday, a round the world adventure, a spiritual escape, a GAP year, while on your bucket list, vagabonding, in retirement, or on a prolonged escape from work? If you have read this far, you are in luck. All you need to do is keep reading. The HOW is what this book is all about. No need to sit and cogitate and wonder what to do; it’s all spelled out for you in the following pages. Simply choose what technique you want to emulate, make some notes, and off you go. It’s as easy as that. Just remember, in the words of the great philosopher Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Transformative travel links