What Is Experiential Tourism?

Person sitting on a stone wall overlooking a large cityscape
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“Experiential tourism” has become a popular term for travel marketers, but it can mean different things to different people. For some, experiential travel means doing anything that falls outside of a standard sightseeing, museum-going itinerary. For others, it is defined by interactions with locals or by going to places that might not be considered tourist attractions at all.

The definitions might be different, but the goals of experiential travelers are usually similar: to immerse themselves in a way that leads to some sort of discovery, insight or inspiration. This travel philosophy is usually championed by fully independent travelers (those who travel without help from agents or guides), but tour companies and even non-profit organizations have embraced the trend, promising transformative experiences to people who buy their vacation packages or join their volun-tourism programs.

Is experiential tourism redefining travel or is it a fad that will eventually fade? If it is a lasting travel trend, how will it affect off-the-beaten-path destinations that usually do not see many mainstream tourists?

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Leveling the field

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For some places, the experiential travel trend could be a game-changer. Smaller destinations cannot hope to compete with tourism heavyweights when it comes to infrastructure, advertising budget and investment. They can, however, differentiate themselves by focusing on the unique experiences they offer.

Manitoba provides an example. The oft-forgotten Canadian province highlights how local tour companies and communities can use the experiential trend to gain an edge in the ultra-competitive travel marketplace. Travel Manitoba explains that small operators can “avoid unnecessary risks and major investments by shifting the opportunity focus from building more infrastructure to building the capacity of people who can tell your ‘story' and connect with the traveler.”

According to Manitoba’s tourism stakeholders, the “ingredients” of a successful experiential tourism strategy include hands-on activities and interactions with locals. They also highlight the need for guides to change their approach to guiding. The goal should be to facilitate tours so that tourists can make discoveries and gain insights on their own.

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Can all smaller destinations benefit?

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On paper, the Manitoba approach sounds like a great idea, but is it practical? Some conscientious travelers might choose a destination because they want to support such grassroots efforts, but most are, first and foremost, seeking experiences. If they want to succeed, these destinations have to deliver.

New Zealand’s tourism development in recent decades suggests that experiential tourism can indeed help off-the-radar places develop into mainstream destinations. Admittedly, this Southern Hemisphere country was able to take advantage of the buzz from the "Lord of the Rings" movies to help its tourism efforts. However, New Zealand has stuck with advertising campaigns that focus on adventure and culture rather than on attractions related to the popular films.

Adventure sports, culinary and wine tourism, and cultural excursions have led to a boom for New Zealand in both the U.S. and Asia Pacific markets. This has happened at a grassroots level, with more than nine out every 10 tour companies in the country having fewer than five employees. This means that even if people are there for the skiing or wine and nothing else, they will often be interacting directly with local people in a way that is more personal than in destinations with more traditional tourism infrastructure.

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An emotional connection

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Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island has, like Manitoba, published a list of ingredients, which they call “essentials,” necessary for a successful experiential tourism sector. Keywords like “hands on” and “authentic” are part of this document, but so is something else: “emotion.” In other words, the goal of travelers is to find experiences that allow them to feel a connection to a place rather than to just see it.

This is not a new idea. You often hear people express affection for major world cities like Paris, Hong Kong or New York without ever mentioning the Eiffel Tower, Victoria Peak or Times Square. Perhaps the real allure of experiential tourism is that it makes it acceptable to seek out this kind of emotional connection.

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A win for sustainability

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The issue of sustainability might be important to travelers, but it might not always be practical to travel in a sustainable way and to support the preservation of local culture and ecosystems. This is especially true in mainstream tourist destinations.

Experiential tourism, on the other hand, can make sustainability more practical when it comes to both culture and the environment.

How is this possible?

Uniqueness is one of the biggest assets that a place can have when it comes to experiential tourism. Ideally, tourists who are interested in this kind of travel would reward a destination for preserving its nature, culture, historic architecture and other aspects of their destination by spending their travel budget there.

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Culinary tourism

people shopping a a street market

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One of the most popular forms of experiential travel is culinary tourism. This can involve visiting neighborhood restaurants or markets with a local guide, or it could be more in-depth and include cooking classes, wine tastings and even picking trips to farms or gardens. La Boqueria, a classic market in Barcelona, has been successful at offering cooking classes and other immersive experiences to people who would otherwise only come there to sightsee.

Food tourism is currently one of the most accessible forms of experiential travel. Tourists seem drawn to culinary experiences, proving that experiential travel can cross over into the mainstream. The foodie trend also shows that worries about the "McDonald's-ization" of the world are unfounded.

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An authentic image

person using smartphone at Buckingham Palace

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Social media has played a part in the rise of culinary tourism. Whole social accounts are based on nothing but pictures of raw ingredients and beautifully plated dishes. This points to a larger trend that shows that, like it or not, social media is how people connect with and get inspired by like-minded travelers. What does this mean for experiential travel?

The “Instagram effect” is real, and marketing offices have started inviting photographers with large Instagram followings on press junkets. This has helped to redefine travel, with people wanting to have the same experiences as those they see on social media.

At a recent tourism event, the head of marketing for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Chattan Kunjara na Ayudhya, pointed out that the process of taking images to post on social media can be beneficial for experiential travelers if the images are authentic. “An authentic image can tell a very complex story in a very simple way. These simple images are shared by travelers on a day to day basis.”

He went on the explain that destinations and tourism industry stakeholders should be responsible for presenting tourists with the opportunities to create such images. “We need to make sure that we are creating authentic experiences that are shareable."

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Volunteer, see the world

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Another aspect of experiential tourism involves immersing yourself in something that you are truly passionate about. This could be cooking, pottery or something more obscure, like the conservation of wild plants. Such nature-based immersive experiences are offered in Southern Oregon by the Wild River Coast Alliance, which organizes programs that support communities and ecology in the region.

For some, simply getting beyond the tourist trail and seeing the real culture of a destination is the ultimate example of experiential tourism. This has always been a popular option for youth travelers or so-called “gap-year” tourists. Tour packages offering such experiences often have an educational angle (studying abroad or participating in a language immersion program). Some involve homestays or volunteering on development projects while living abroad.

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Understanding the place

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Are tourists simply ticking experiences off their to-do list just as they’d tick off sightseeing sites, or are they actually gaining understanding of the places that they visit? The criticism of the experiential trend is that immersion experiences are, in general, just another way to package tourism. The trend may allow smaller destinations to capitalize on their unique attributes, but the travelers are still short-term visitors whose travel experiences are lacking.

Is it possible to be overzealous in this pursuit of experiences? In Luang Prabang, an historic city and UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos, one tradition has become quite popular with tourists. The practice of donating food to feed the city’s monks occurs every morning. Local people congregate at the roadside and put food into the monks’ bowls as they walk past. Tourists began coming early in the morning to photograph the procession-like practice. Some even take part, raising concerns that this once quiet, solemn religious affair has descended into a noisy spectacle.

The Luang Prabang Airport reportedly has signs that offer advice on how to participate in the almsgiving in a respectful way.

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The future of experiential tourism

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The demand for air travel is expected to double in the next two decades. Tourism is growing at a steady rate. Despite criticisms and drawbacks, the growth of experiential tourism could allow smaller players in the tourism industry to benefit from this growth without having to sacrifice their culture, sell their land to developers or change the way that they live.