In your year-end and new year’s travel reading, it’s likely you’ve encountered more than a few “best of” or “hot” lists enumerating countries and destinations you must visit in the next year. As tempted as I am to question the logic and criteria of the entries cataloged therein, I will instead offer my own alternative list — one to complement them all, one that focuses less on “the where” and more on “the how.”
Sure, the nature of your travel experience will be impacted by where you decide to travel. Destination lists provide inspiration. They introduce us to places we may never have heard of or otherwise considered, which is one of the reasons why they remain popular. (Note: if you’re a hot list junkie, here are a few for your: Our Offbeat Hot List: 8 Destinations You’re Not Considering…But Should and 11 Offbeat Treks Around the World)
More and more, however, we travelers seek something to impact and transform us, to transcend the physical location of where we happen to be. By the notion of “the how,” I don’t mean the mode of transport you choose or the ways to get a great travel deal. Rather, I’m talking about carrying a mindset that yields an expanded sense of possibility of what your travel experiences can look and feel like, and the arsenal of travel behaviors and philosophy underlying the decisions you make to get there.
The following list is based one finger on the pulse of our conversations and observations in the past years and another finger in the wind, pointed to the future. It features emergent themes in experiential and mindful travel — that is, approaching travel in ways that alter your sense of self, of the world and your place in it.
While you could compose an entire trip based on any one of these themes, they are better considered as travel seasoning for any journey or experience you set off on.
1. Wanderlust to Wonder-lust
This taps the age-old debate of depth vs. breadth in travel, but adds a twist.
It’s fair to say that most of us will not make it to every corner of the Earth during our lifetimes. There’s a physical limit to the range of our travels. We can, however, gain a deeper understanding of the corners we do manage to visit, and we can allow ourselves be more deeply affected by them.
Think of this as “geography of the mind.”
We often imagine this sort of mental state as one that arises from interactions with nature. It’s also possible to find it amidst the urban or manmade — from the wind in the treetops, to the vibration of the temple bells to the rhythm of footsteps on the streets of Tokyo.
Recently, I stopped in my tracks reflecting on a church built into a stone hillside as I walked the walls of Luxembourg City. I'd seen the church only at a distance, yet I found myself intensely imagining its history, including what the town may have looked and felt like 500 years ago, what it must have felt like during a church service at that time. I considered its past, my present and what this might mean for the future. And this was only time, one dimension along which I took a brief mental journey.
The trick is to take in as much signal as possible while simultaneously shutting out the noise. What noise, you ask? The noise that brings us somewhere else other than where we are. When we avoid this temptation, we can immerse ourselves, hold on, and be blown away by the tiny bit we are appreciating, then roll it up into being astonished by all that is our planet.
This raised consciousness can healthily — and somewhat paradoxically — leave us wondering “where did it all come from?” just as we accept that the answer is not easily there before us.
2. The Travel of Caring
It may feel outside of the grasp of the average traveler to do something to “change the world.” This should not prevent us from caring deeply about the places we visit and the people with whom we interact. In fact, this orientation helps counter-balance the challenging circumstances and turbulent world we are likely to behold when we get amongst it.
Events from the last years underscore this. Many of the places we visit do, too.
Adopting this approach isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s often among the least comfortable options available. So why do it? The more we attempt to understand each other without judgment the better able we are to truly connect with one another. This connection is a win and delivers immediate returns to the one making the attempt. The effects are also long-term, for the generosity built into caring is selfishly good for one's own health.
What does this have to do with travel?
It is this deep caring – for people, our environment, ourselves – that determines what of the world we and our children will have left to live in…and to visit.
In this way, actions that cascade from a mindset of caring really do “change the world.”
“Authenticity” and “authentic travel” are thrown about quite regularly these days. But what does authenticity really mean?
One resonant definition I heard a couple of years ago from a local guide, appropriately in Haiti: “Authenticity is showing the reality of a place — good and bad.”
Why is this relevant for travelers?
To truly understand a place we need to appreciate both its beauty and its blemishes, and to comprehend this from a local perspective. This last part is especially important, for this is what “having perspective” really means, observing the same subject from multiple points of view.
In the province of Guizhou, China, I recall our being approached by a young student who wished to practice her English. She offered to show us “the beautiful buildings” in her town. Our expectations were primed for some secret old town streets, something in short supply in China, even at the time.
We followed the girl out of the town center to an overlook with a perfect view…of a development flush with new apartment buildings. They were built on land recently cleared of traditional homes and historical living quarters. For better or worse, for nostalgia or progress, this is authentic.
Sometimes our quest for “authenticity” is at odds with our expectations of what travel ought to hold. Are we willing to accept what is and the perspective of local inhabitants — including all the surprises that run against the grain of our preconceived notions?
This re-interpretation of authenticity implies focusing less on what destinations once were and comprehending more of what they are now.
And after all, isn’t this the sort of adaptability that travel is intended to teach?
4. Volunteering/Voluntourism: From “Giving Back” to “Learning From”
The understanding of volunteering and voluntourism will reflect that such engagements are more often about the volunteer acquiring a new perspective or honing a skill in some faraway place rather than helping or “saving” the host community there. The concept that the greatest shift during a volunteer placement occurs in the volunteer himself is something deep and almost counter-intuitive that organizations such as Peace Corps have long recognized.
Awareness that volunteers are there first to learn and remain open to local knowledge can only aid volunteer effectiveness as it requires one to listen before doing. Witness, as we have, so many projects around the world that were meant to do good, yet went awry or away altogether because the organizations involved didn’t first seek to understand the local community’s needs, challenges and values.
Additionally, this shift in perspective also empowers host communities by recognizing their strengths and honoring the knowledge their members can share with volunteers and visitors. This orientation helps rebalance power in traditional volunteer-host community relationships. It also supports the idea that “everyone has something to share,” a philosophy first impressed upon us by Rabee Zureikat, the founder of Zikra Initiative, during our visit to Jordan years ago.
If we truly wish to do good we must open ourselves to doing it well — by first learning from those we seek to help.
5. Re-evaluation of “Sustainable Tourism”
We hope the discussion continues to evolve beyond “hang up your hotel towels” and other energy-saving “greening” checklists when it comes to sustainable tourism. Those are important, too. But let’s focus on the core value underlying sustainable tourism: RESPECT. Respect for culture, humanity, environment and economy — and all the nuanced interconnections between them.
All are needed for a holistic and long-term approach that imagines tourism as a tool for community development and conservation. As Judy Kepher-Gona from Kenya Conservation Land Trust (KLCT) is fond of saying: “Great places to visit must first and foremost be great places to live in for host communities.”
What will this mean in practice? An evolution in the minds of travelers and service providers that sustainable tourism is more of a process, rather than a distinct endpoint or destination. Sustainable tourism will be focused more on improving the lives of the people in the places we visit. From there, we can more easily set a foundation for creating travel experiences that are not only enjoyable for visitors, but also more immersive.
6. Adventure Becomes Even More Personal
TL;DR: adventure travel is the travel of exploring all of one’s limits, not just the physical ones.
We’ve all seen images of people hanging from a cliff face, an inspirational adventure slogan underneath. This image cliché just might leave you thinking: “I can never be adventurous.”
Adventure, though, is intensely personal; it entails the exploration of one’s own peaks and achievements. Adventure implies something different for each of us, with the same apparent challenge stretching everyone in unique ways to unique ends.
So the adventure questions of the future: Did I stretch myself? Did I learn and grow? What did I achieve? And how? What were the challenges — my personal challenges — along the way?
Whether you make your way solo or in a group, personal is the future of adventure travel.
7. Disconnection and the Digital Detox
This is the new form of escape. The idea: disconnect to re-connect. As our lives are ever-consumed by the screen and the invisible tether of our social media feeds, apps and the digital messaging spaghetti beckoning in our smart phones, the great emergent luxury of the 21st century: stillness, nothing, peace, offline, digital detox.
I noticed when I began traveling a lot 30 years ago, I would talk about going to Cuba or going to Tibet, and people's eyes would light up with excitement. And nowadays, I notice that people's eyes light up most in excitement when I talk about going nowhere or going offline. – Pico Iyer, OnBeing interview
In the coming years, we will see more travel that involves getting away from the noise, the buzz, the notifications. More travel that is about doing less. Travel that offers time and space to be still, to be present, to breathe, and to re-evaluate your life and how you wish to live it. I’m not talking about necessarily checking yourself into a detox or yoga retreat (although I did appreciate my 10-day silent meditation retreat last year), but about taking time during your travels to be present, to absorb what you have experienced.
Listen to, identify and honor the emotions inside you — including the ones surfaced by your exploration.
8. From Observation to Participation
Participatory travel is on the rise. Travel has long featured classes and courses and “the art of making” to acquire a new skill or to delve into one's interests. Think cooking classes, batik painting, sailing lessons and the like. We take this theme but adjust the lens slightly to think about it as the idea of participating – doing things that get your hands dirty and engaged with people – rather than observing.
In addition to the itinerary item or scheduled experience, this also implies engaging on the fly. For example, asking the women at the market to teach you new words for foreign vegetables; learning for its own sake. Or engaging a local fisherman at the market to teach you how to clean a fish. This involves putting yourself out there, with all the vulnerability and discomfort that entails. Experiential travel and learning means gaining confidence and building connection through engagement.
9. Reflective. Bringing It Back Home.
I’m not talking about a dump of the photos from your trip on Facebook, Instagram or other social media platform. That has its place. Instead, I speak more about incorporating a little something from your trip back into your daily life.
Ask yourself: “Is there anything I take for granted at home that captures my fascination on the road?”
Chances are, there is.
Maybe you discovered something about food or a cuisine that you can bring back to your kitchen at home. How about infusing your life with a little bit of what you discovered on the road, including an adventure out to the ethnic grocer across town to find the ingredients in your favorite faraway dish?
On the mental front, “bringing it home” can include recapturing a feeling or emotion from your travels by identifying facets of the experience that are independent of place. Take the feeling of relaxation or decompression on that amazing beach. While you may not have a beach at home, there are plenty of opportunities to relax and decompress in beauty. But we're often not conditioned to take advantage of this at home because it sounds kind of silly.
Take the sense of amazement you felt while admiring a bit of astonishing natural beauty like the dunes of the Namibian desert.
You may not have fabulous orange dunes at home. I don't either.
But the potential for awe is all around us, everywhere. It’s just that we aren’t conditioned to look for it at home as much as we are when we're somewhere far-flung. In fact, at home we're accustomed to ignore it because it's right there; we've taken it for granted.
Harnessing this can be as simple as going out to your backyard on a clear evening and staring into the sky for a long, long time. Or taking a walk in a nearby forest, breathing deeply as you’ve never breathed before.
Sure, it’s easier to find exhilaration, adventure, relaxation and disconnection halfway around the world. But isn’t the greatest resonance of that awesome vacation found in translating a bit of its satisfaction into your everyday life?
10. There is No “Right” Way to Travel
We are all different from one another, and we often know different selves throughout our own lifetimes.
Each of us has inherent yet evolving preferences — what makes us tick, brings us joy and fulfills our objectives. What satisfies you about your travels may not do so for the next person. Nor is it guaranteed that what works well for you now will work for you the next time out. Travel is intended to help us grow. But as we grow, we also experience change. It follows that there's no rightful place for snobbery or rigidity in travel.
With all the access and flexibility built into modern travel, here's the not-so-secret: there's no sure-fire recipe. As in life, grasping deep satisfaction in travel is about engaging your sense of possibility and experimentation. It's about picking up and honing a set of tools (mental, physical, digital and otherwise) to fashion enriching travel experiences that work for you.
And to realize that the joy is the journey — or “the how” if you like — rather than the destination.