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Whether it’s to have the time of your life, discover another culture, or for spiritual fulfilment, we’ve started to invest an awful lot into the idea of going abroad. For many, a simple package holiday simply doesn’t cut it anymore. With the growth of experiential and transformational travel, are we starting to expect too much from our travel experiences?
Spending money on experiences rather than on material goods is becoming the new goal for millennials. These experiences could be anything from a gig to a meal out, but travel is a particular priority. Research from the World Travel and Tourism Council suggests that the travel industry is the world’s fastest growing sector, while we are making fewer purchases of physical objects, like clothes.
Even without these indicators, the proliferation of travel bloggers and instagrammers reflects our growing collective obsession with travel. We read about intrepid individuals kitting out a van and living life on the road, or sigh over the lives of sun-kissed explorers who’ve spent the last six months paddling on the coast of Thailand. The romantic notion of adventure makes it easy to get swept up in the idea that travel is always an extraordinary experience.
In this context, the word ‘holiday’ is becoming far less used in favour of the more evocative ‘travel’, and our expectations of what it will be like to see the world are sky high. We think we will transform by going away; become more intelligent and open-minded individuals. The act of travel is seen as almost transcendental.
The travel industry has been responding to this fast-growing sentiment. The first concept was experiential travel (which can come off as a little odd – which part of life isn’t ‘experiential’?), where people get out of their hotels and dive into the culture that surrounds them. This means enjoying street food, going to the places only locals know about and soaking up everything that’s unique about their destination. The appeal of this is obvious, but it’s also something that can (at times) be tied to intellectual snobbery. Staying next to the pool and being culturally oblivious is something people are starting to consider gauche.
Transformative travel takes experience to the next level. It could be that going abroad opens your mind and you are forever changed by the experience – maybe even deciding to radically alter your life. ‘Voluntourism’ is particular tied into this idea. Other transformations are about undoing the effects of modern life. This could be secluding oneself on retreats and using yoga or meditation to beat the stress caused by the daily grind, or going somewhere for a juice cleanse and taking the time to detox and rejuvenate.
Both of these ideas are revolutionising the travel industry, and have made the concept of travel far more loaded than going away for a week to get a tan. There’s no disputing that there’s huge value in both concepts – they could very well change your life – but we can be guilty of assuming that travel is the answer to all life’s problems, and the key to becoming a better person.
Like every part of life, travel is full of compromises, disappointments and sometimes even screaming frustration. You may not return from your travels improved; you may even be more tired and jaded than you left. Long-term travel in particular can be very stressful. The disappointed shock that people feel when they arrive in Bali and see litter on the beach, or arrive at their hotel on the Spanish coast only to find another is being built next door, has a lot to do with the disconnect between their expectations and reality.
This isn’t to paint an overly negative picture, of course. There’s no reason why travel won’t facilitate an truly amazing time. However, the realities of life are present wherever we go, and we can become hugely disillusioned if we set off with unattainable ideas – built from advertising, aspirational blogs and social media – set in our minds. Advertisers obviously have a vested interest in making the travel experiences they are selling seem untouchably perfect, and people tend to edit out the boring and difficult bits for social media in order to create a more compelling narrative (and sometimes, it must be said, show off a little bit).
By reigning in our expectations a little, we make ourselves more open to new experiences, and less likely to dismiss a place simply because it doesn’t match up to our pre-formed ideas. When kids go on holiday they tend think everything’s brilliant simply because there’s a pool, which shows that not having any big expectations can actually be the precursor to a better time. By taking travel as it comes, rather than chasing an idea, we may find something even better than we were looking for.