Purposeful Tourism Is More Than Just a Vacation

Many people travel on spiritual or religious quests, such as to the Wailing Wall in in Jerusalem. (Photo: Kvitka Fabian/Shutterstock)

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient Christian pilgrimage route that runs over the Pyrenees mountains in France, down into Spain and along various routes in the northern part of the country with a final destination of Santiago de Compostela, a city where the remains of St. James are said to be buried. The route has been used since the 9th century, and the people who walk the path aren't tourists; they call themselves pilgrims because they are on a spiritual, religious quest.

In fact, it was only (relatively) recently that the modern idea of a tourist on a vacation for pleasure has become widespread. Throughout history, people traveled of course, but they did so for personal or spiritual reasons; for health (for seaside air or to natural hot springs in the mountains); to scope out new territory; to learn skills from people of another culture; or to find new plants, food or medicine. In other words — people traveled, but always with a purpose.

As in many things, that idea has come full circle, as some travelers seek to do more with their time and money abroad than just see the sights and get some rest. Aside from pleasure, here are a few different reasons to put exploration on your list.

To improve health

Mountain climber
Spending time in nature is good for your body and your mind. (Photo: Olga Danylenko/Shutterstock)

While spa vacations have seemed to co-opt this idea, there's more to a traveling for health than massage and yoga (after all, you can do those things at home). To travel for health reasons could mean many things: spending time outside in nature, which offers positive physical and mental effects; setting and meeting a physical challenge like climbing a mountain; or unplugging in a wild and off-the-grid locale.

Traveling to a new place to focus on some aspect of your physical or mental health can help kick-start a new routine or enable you to learn from teachers who might not travel to you. Which brings us to another great reason to travel...

To learn

Sometimes learning needs to take place in a certain location, an experience which can't be replicated at home. Learning about Japanese ceramic techniques in Japan from teachers there is a wholly different experience than learning online or via a local teacher.

Plenty of master teachers don't like to or want to travel (while others seem to be perpetually on tour), so you might have no choice but to go to them.

To give back

Volunteers plant mangrove trees in Indonesia
Volunteers plant trees in the mud of a mangrove forest in Thailand. (Photo: NaiyanaB/Shutterstock)

Traveling can allow you to experience a new place or culture while giving back in a project-oriented way. There are plenty of voluntourism opportunities, from habitat restoration for wildlife via Biosphere Expeditions, to ancient art restorations, to searching for pottery shards with scientists. You can search for opportunities in a wide variety of programs via GoVoluntouring.com and Grassroots Volunteering.

It even stretches to cruises — Fathom cruises, a new endeavor by Carnival, says travelers can make a "social impact" on their runs from Miami to the Dominican Republic and, now that it's open to U.S. travel, to Cuba. The whole idea is to make connections with like-minded people who want more meaningful travel and give back to the people who need assistance in the destination locales.

"On the inaugural cruise, my daughter and I helped manufacture chocolate bars and process recycled paper for women’s co-ops and create water filters to fight water-borne disease. Other travelers taught English in schools and reforested the hills. They are small contributions but connect travelers to real-world issues and awaken a sense of purpose in people," writes Aaron Hurst of his experience.

For spirituality

Like the Christian pilgrims to the Camino de Santiago, Muslims to Mecca or Jewish supplicants to the Wailing Wall, many people travel on spiritual or religious quests, sometimes quite far from home. These often include elements of all of the above: helping the less fortunate, improving mental or physical health, learning from a master teacher (common in Hinduism and Buddhism) or increasing the understanding of one's faith.

Purposeful tourism will enrich your experience and ground it in something that matters to you. But always keep in mind Lawrence Block's words: “Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”