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Steeped in Culture

Steeped in Culture

What do you want to do on your next vacation? Where do you want to go? For many travelers, the answers to these questions are changing.

Travel agencies are getting more requests for once-in-a-lifetime, unique experiences than ever before. Experience-oriented travelers aren’t looking to lounge on a beach – they want to be immersed in local culture and take part in meaningful encounters with the people who live there.

Experiential travel has been growing at a steady clip: From 2009 to 2012, the market increased by 65 percent a year in North America, South America and Europe, according to a study done by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and George Washington University. And Skift Research’s 2018 U.S. Affluent Traveler Survey found that 67 percent of well-to-do travelers prefer spending money on experiences rather than fancier hotels.

Nowadays, people don’t want their vacations to be sedentary or passive. You can lounge at home, but you seldom have the opportunity to cook a traditional Moroccan dish with a chef in Marrakesh, paraglide over the Grand Canyon or explore a 600-year-old Japanese morning market.

steeped in culture
Dubrovnik’s terra cotta rooftops at sunset.
steeped in culture
Alpacas stand at the ready in Cusco, Peru.

Travel’s New Storytellers

Travelers of all generations are increasingly looking for unique experiences far beyond the gift shop. According to a 2016 study by Harris Group, 78 percent of millennials would rather spend money on experiences than on physical goods – and members of previous generations are following their adventurous leads.

Emma Senk, 24, and Nicole Veigas, 25, recently embarked on Peru’s famous Inca Trail – a multiday trek through the mountains that eventually leads to Machu Picchu.

“I was looking for an active vacation that would also dive into the culture of where we were visiting,” said Senk, of Mineola, N.Y. “Unique, off-the-beaten-path travel shows you a new place in a completely different way. It was really great to see how much the people wanted to teach you about their wildlife and culture, and to meet travelers looking for similar experiences.”

Veigas agreed, but also noted that the experiences they had on their trip have influenced her everyday life.

“I like pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” said Veigas, of Carle Place, N.Y. “In my normal life, I might not be hiking a mountain, but I can draw on this experience to overcome daily obstacles. And this isn’t something a lot of people get to see.”

New York-area tour director Matt Guido also has some experience in how travel expectations are changing. He’s worked with a wide variety of age groups doing tours in Canada and the Northeast, and he’s seen firsthand what modern-day travelers are looking for.

“Having unique experiences brings them a little out of the cookie-cutter trip that others have done and elevates their travel experience,” Guido said. “Guests aren’t looking as much for the generic facts about a city or region because they can just as easily look it up on Wikipedia. Tour directors are becoming storytellers.”

Authentic Experiences

Various tour companies are following travelers’ demands for culturally immersive experiences. Tourists can now book local outings like a croissant and coffee crawl through Paris on Airbnb, and tour operators and cruise lines are following suit, allowing guests to choose from ecological, volunteerism-oriented and culinary adventures during their vacations.

2018 saw the debut of a new tour operator at AAA: Club Adventures, which specializes in small group travel and authentic experiences.

I recently accompanied Club Adventures on a tour of the Balkans and saw the benefits of experiential travel for myself. Because our group was so small (there were only about a dozen of us) we were able to really immerse ourselves in the countries we visited. We swam in the Adriatic Sea at sunset, explored cities that were thousands of years old and delighted in local street food. My favorite – by far – was burek, a spiral pastry with fillings like meat, cheese or spinach.

Club Adventures’ focus on sustainable travel meant that we stayed in locally owned hotels and dined at locally owned restaurants. Our guides were all from the area, and injected each tour with a lifetime of experience. It felt like we had a backstage pass to our own vacation.

steeped in culture
AAA Club Adventures group in the Balkans.

Travel tastes are changing, and that’s a good thing. Experiential travel pivots away from manufactured getaways and toward authentic, rewarding experiences. As long as people have an appetite for this type of travel, there will be more and more opportunities to engage with cultures around the world.

Experience the world through small-group travel.


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