Have you heard the term “experiential” travel? How about “voluntourism?”
Catchy buzzwords for a new kind of vacation? Well...yes. And no. While not a completely new trend in the world of travel, this kind of travel is now among the hottest.
Once the purview primarily of church and charitable mission trips, “voluntourism” moved into the mainstream of the leisure travel industry after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti - and really picked up steam after 2017’s catastrophic sister hurricanes, Irma and Maria, demolished some of the Caribbean’s most scenic and popular islands.
Some of the large cruise lines and commercial tour operators started offering shore excursions and stop overs where passengers and tour members could help rebuild houses, paint schools, or work in a soup kitchen. These opportunities to do good while on vacation have proven so popular, some companies are building them into their regularly scheduled itineraries.
What we call “experiential travel” may have been around longer, but this style of vacationing continues to evolve. Where you once might have had a few chances to “meet the people” over the course of a nine- or ten-day tour, stopping by a farmhouse for tea and scones, or visiting a winery or two, you often now have many opportunities to develop a deeper connection to your destination and its people, be it staying with families in small villages, or navigating your way through a town’s open air market, gathering the ingredients for a class taught by a local chef.
So how can you dive into this type of travel? Opportunities abound:
People-to-People tours in Cuba
Still the best, and, well, the only legal way for Americans to see Cuba. Even with the changes in travel restrictions, people-to-people tours, presented as educational and cultural exchange activities, are offered as shore excursions for all cruise lines with port calls in Cuba, and offer an authentic glimpse of life in this politically isolated country.
“Impact” and “Explorations”
Collette Vacations, a popular and well-established tour operator, has really run with this type of travel. Offering two “Impact” tours each year, under the auspices of the Collette Foundation, these incredibly popular tours (these often sell out within days of being announced) incorporate opportunities like decorating a classroom with children in South Africa or working with community leaders to beautify a park or playground for the children of a small town in Costa Rica.
Their “Explorations” itineraries offer you the opportunity to “learn, discover, and experience a slice of everyday life that somehow feels extraordinary.” Immersing their tour members in off the beaten path destinations, their hope is you’ll come away with a greater understanding of the people and culture. For more information, click here.
Enchanting Germany and Austria
I’m particularly excited about this opportunity, as my agency is working hand-in-hand with the couple who have painstakingly put together the itinerary - and will, in fact, escort it! Encompassing a variety of tours, excursions, and one-of-a-kind experiences, this September 18 to October 2 tour will take you to historic cities and towns, charming castles, waterfalls, and even one of the main tents in Munich’s world-famous Oktoberfest celebrations! A highlight of the trip - a homestay with local families for four days of your trip, where you’ll experience town and family life. For more information, click here.
One of the oldest and most established examples of experiential travel, a visit to this tiny town is also an example of immersion travel! From a town of 5200 people, approximately 2600 residents participate in this once-in-a-decade presentation of The Passion Play. First performed in by townspeople in 1634, as a sign of devotion for those surviving Bubonic Plague, it has been performed continuously since then in years ending in 0.
The five months of performances of this famous play is woven into the fabric of community life. In fact, for travelers staying in the local hotels, you’ll see the performers go about their daily lives and jobs. One 2010 visitor related a story to me of having the apostle Peter as her waiter for lunch! All major tour operators offer escorted vacations for this event - and several departures are already sold out for the 2020 performances!
And there are opportunities for trips like this all over the world! Want to discuss philosophy with a Hindu scholar? Or have lunch with a Moroccan family, followed by dinner at a nearby palace? You’ll find a vacation to suit your sense of adventure!