Close your eyes for a minute and a half and soak in all the sounds surrounding you. Ninety seconds. That’s a long time just to listen, but there is a reason.
Hidden Places travel company co-owner Maria Coffey explains that when she takes visitors to Genovesa Island, part of the Galapagos Archipelago, she asks everyone to engage in this auditory exercise before seeing the wildlife. “You just listen and take in this soundscape,” she says. “People are really moved by it and often don’t want to come out of that experience.”
That experience does not come cheap — for an 11-day tour of the Galapagos, prices start out at $5,890 per person. But proponents of so-called meaningful or transformational travel say that having an “experiential” trip doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars — and it can change the way you view the world or see yourself in a way that expensive cruises, long stays at isolated resorts or typical tourist trips cannot.
By definition, meaningful travel isn’t for everyone — no matter the price, these trips typically require more preparation and more intention during the journey.
So what is meaningful travel, exactly, and how does it differ from your typical vacation?
Think of a long family tour of France that includes curated visits to the Louvre, a week living with the locals in Provence, and time to see Roman ruins in Arles. Hotels and travel arrangement are carefully selected to create a bespoke travel experience.
Here you make the effort to become immersed in the Louvre’s treasures rather than just gape at them. Instead of simply seeing the sights in Provence, you make an effort to live like the locals and connect with them as individuals. And rather than only taking pictures of Roman artifacts, you take the time to contemplate what those ruins in Arles have meant in history. This type of approach can turn a vacation into an “experiential” trip in which you and your family learn as much about yourself as you do the surroundings.
Whether it’s a volunteer-based vacation or becoming embedded in the place you’re staying, it’s a departure from a traditional vacation where you might not step beyond the grounds of your hotel or resort. Transformational travel has the potential to actually transform you.
Transformational travel isn’t necessarily a trip to a specific place, doing a specific activity or spending an enormous amount of money. It can mean a trip to a locale that expands your understanding of a culture or a place, an extended stay where you live like a local or a trip where you give back through volunteering or fundraising for a cause.
Here are several types of transformative trips to consider when planning your next vacation.
When travel writer Matt Villano goes on expeditions with his family, he plans trips where his family can live like locals.
“We do a lot of embedding,” Villano said. “Instead of taking one week and moving around, we’ll take multiple weeks or an extended period of time and just live in that one place, absorbing through osmosis and exploring everything that’s going on.”
Abby Falik, the founder of Global Citizen Year, an international immersion program for students to take a gap year between high school and college, emphasizes the importance of slowing down and spending more time in a single place, as opposed to traveling at frenetic pace to see all of the tourist sights.
For the Villano family, “embedding” is a departure from the typical kind of trip with a jam-packed itinerary. It involves taking local forms of transportation, participating in local festivals and events and finding favorite spots that they visit again and again during their trip.
Villano tells of an experience riding a London bus when one of his young daughters struck up a conversation with a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf.
“She still, to this day, talks about that encounter,” Villano says. “It opened her mind about people and women from other places.”
“Voluntourism” can be another powerful way to transform a family vacation into a truly meaningful experience. Whether it’s helping literacy efforts here or abroad, building houses in impoverished nations, or working with locals to preserve habitats for endangered species, it entails forging a connection between people and the environment that other types of vacations cannot offer.
Hidden Places’ Miles for Elephants offers trips in Tanzania to explore elephant habitats and have raised more than $100,000 for community scouts to track down elephant poachers. There are other ways to connect with people and places besides raising money or doing volunteer work. Hidden Places’ kayaking trips in Kerala, India, take visitors through narrow channels with local guides where they see villages up close. One guide invites guests into his mother’s home for tea and a meal.
“These trips are meaningful because you meet real people,” Coffey says. “You get to know the guide, and you may meet his brother and mother. You are getting to know his life.”
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