Graham Boynton reports on the rise of experiential travel
There was a time when the word ‘holiday’ meant we travelled to a foreign place, usually somewhere hot and sunny, and did not do very much at all. The accent was on reclining, eating and drinking and, if you were in Africa, staring at processions of wild animals from the comfort of a Land Rover.
But that world seems to have passed into folklore. These days, we want much more out of our travel experiences — we want to be engaged and active and to take something emotionally and intellectually substantial home with us. The buzzword is ‘experiential’.
This is confirmed by Chris McIntyre, founder and managing director of Expert Africa. “A decade or two ago,” he says, “our travellers were content to visit Africa and passively see what was there. Now they’re much more demanding about the experiences that we can offer them in Africa — the holy grail is ‘real’ experiences, interacting with interesting or knowledgeable locals, which aren’t scripted or rehearsed in any way.”
Not surprisingly, this is being driven by a new generation of international travellers emerging from a decade of being slaves of social media, a world of instant responses, shallow shared encounters, Pinterest-inspired bucket lists and endless Instagram boasts … all the antithesis of profound life experiences. As a result what they want now is blood and thunder and real life; learning experiences in foreign lands that enhance their understanding of real people; adventure that gets the heart racing.
Naturally, the travel industry is responding to these changing needs, marketing its experiential offerings with gusto. Industry gatherings such as Pure in Morocco and We Are Africa in Cape Town are now bursting with experiential products, lectures and seminars.
We Are Africa’s managing director Ryan Wallace says that in his view Africa has always been the leader in experiential and adventure travel. “But what we are seeing now is an acceleration on the demand side, so that even city hotels are increasingly expected to be an access point to a neighbourhood and facilitate more meaningful interactions with their surrounding community and elements.”
As Wallace says, the lodges and safari operators have been providing powerful experiences for a long time, “but demand is shifting towards more active experiences that enrich and transform and to journeys infused with greater purpose such as boosting conservation”.
So, while the main draw to Africa remains the wilderness and wild animals, experiential travellers now want to learn about the extraordinary biological cauldron that is the bushveld, to understand the threats posed by population growth and international criminal gangs, and to engage with the long-overlooked rural communities that live with the wild animals.
It is not widely known that in many African countries, more than 70 per cent of wildlife lives outside the national parks and is thus in constant conflict with rural communities. At last, more adventurous international travellers are coming to recognise this, and through this recognition, the travel industry may yet become a major contributor to the salvation of Africa’s wildlife. About time.
Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. The views expressed in this column are his own.