If Experiential Travel sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Not long ago, we just called that “Travel.” We used to learn a handful of phrases in the local language if we wanted to communicate. We had to ask locals for directions. If we wanted some product, we had to find the local version of it. Eating a meal meant eating local food at a local restaurant and ordering off a local-language menu.
So, basically, we replaced most of what was local and unique about a destination with multinational, culture-free versions of it – Starbucks, McDonald’s, Hiltons, H&Ms – and created guidebooks and apps to prevent us from having to ask locals for directions.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many people traveling to the other side of the world are disappointed to find that it looks very much like the places they left behind. Plus it doesn’t make for very exotic photos.
So now there’s a movement (at least from marketers and an industry looking for new catchphrases) to kick it old school with local experiences: Experiential Travel or Immersive Travel. As Fortune magazine, wrote: “travel marketers must create moments of human relevance and authenticity in unexpected places.”
Sure, going to a local market or local sporting event is far more interesting if you’re joined by a local, and some online services are facilitating this. The only hook is that most of them are doing it for money. Having a local guide is nothing new. A local guide showing off their favorite non-touristy things is a bit of a twist, but one could make the case that it’s a version of cultural prostitution. They’re taking something that has traditionally been genuine and free and reserved for people they care about and selling this personal service to anyone willing to pay for it. It might be authentic the first time they give the tour. But after 50 clients, it’s about as cookie-cutter as any other form of tourism.
Perhaps Jeremy Smith (Travindy) put it best: “If there was a First Rule of Authenticity, it would be: You cannot create Authenticity.”
Some examples fall into gray areas. It seems having a local person with a special interest and a part-time job outside of tourism guide you around on a rented bike through Rome is perceived by many, at least, to be experiential travel. But renting a bike and hiring a “regular” local guide and cycling around Rome is just a touristy activity.
The word “experiential” also sucks up an awful lot of bandwidth. That is to say, just about everything we do when we travel is an experience.
I get it: Experiential Travel is trying to make a distinction. It’s saying you’re doing more than marching on and off a tour bus or sitting by the pool of your hotel reading a book. The issue is that even sitting by the pool is an experience (and perhaps a nice one if you don’t get the chance to do it that often). In fact, you could meet an interesting guest from another country at an all-inclusive resort and have a fascinating conversation and become friends for life, perhaps visiting each other in your home countries. Who’s to say that isn’t an interesting and meaningful travel experience? (Or the beginning of one.)
The bigger issue is that once these “experiential” and “immersive” boutique tours get sold to enough visitors, they’re no longer terribly authentic. Chasing that latest and greatest and freshest local tour isn’t easy. As Coco Chanel put it: “The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.”
This article was first published on Pulse and is reposted with the author’s permission here.