How to grow from a tourist to a traveller

experiential travel strahov monastery prague
Strahov Monastery Library in Prague


In this 3-part series, astonishedXpression explores the concept of ‘experiential travel’ and how it transforms a tourist into a traveller


It is within everyone’s capacity to travel.

Let me repeat that: It is within everyone’s means to travel!

Travel has always been part of the human condition. A need to move and be moved. A desire to break free from the cocoon of familiarity to experience that which is different. Perhaps that is how we as humans grow. Francis Bacon did say, “Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.”

The Irish artist may not have known it at the time, but his words echo into the present with the tremendous growth of what is gaining traction as ‘experiential travel’.

Experiential travel

When we as travelers invest significant time and funds to transport ourselves from the ‘normal’ – that is our everyday humdrum experience –  to the exotic, we increasingly expect an immersive experience that will expand our frame of reference. In other words, we want to learn about and imbibe the place, city, culture or country we visit.

How do people from a different cultural background cope with life’s challenges?

What customs have they adopted to succeed or survive in the modern world?

How did these practices develop?

What historical, geographic or cultural drivers determined these ‘exotic’ traits?

While I have no doubt ‘experiential travel’ is nothing new – it would be presumptuous to believe otherwise – there is also little doubt that travelers increasingly demand opportunities for immersion as part of their itineraries. They want authentic experiences that will connect them to the people, culture and history of the country they are travelling to.

The most obvious expression of this desire is the often-uttered question: but where do the locals, go, eat or relax? A clear indication that we want to escape the tourist masses. We want to be in-the-know; to feel like an insider. We want to touch, taste and smell the difference – to experience those exalting moments where you stand in stunned awe as it all clicks into place; an epiphany that will remain with you for the rest of your life as you internalize what you experience with your senses.

Progressive travel agencies with their fingers on the pulse offer a range of ‘participatory experiences’ to satisfy this trend, but none of them will tell you the real secret of experiential travel – and that brings me neatly to my opening statement: it is within everyone’s capacity to travel!

The first step

“He that traveleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel.”

Bacon, in his inimitable way, goes to the heart of the matter. Without a foundation of knowledge about your intended destination, you seriously risk diluting your immersion experiences. Your travels become a rapid accumulation of images, smells and tastes that tumble together largely unconnected to each other and might only make holistic sense years down the track – long after your visit, if ever.

To illustrate, try this experiment: watch a FIFA World Cup football match with the commentary turned off… Not much depth to the experience, is there. A vague recollection of a bunch of guys running around, trying to kick the ball into a net.

The occasion of the match itself is the canvas. How you view or experience that canvas depends on how acquired knowledge expands your frame of reference:

  • The knowledgeable commentator provides bold strokes by highlighting player bios, team pedigree, current form and riveting match-ups between star performers.
  • An understanding of body-kinesthetic intelligence emphasizes the absolute genius of certain players in manipulating their body-mind union and timing to execute extraordinary skills, providing the wow-factor.
  • And behind the on-field energy and baying crowds, is the calculating chess-like strategies of wily managers, plotting the defeat of their opponents.

Assimilating this information, or unleashing existing knowledge, dramatically heightens awareness and escalates emotional involvement and enjoyment of the match, evidenced by the ecstatic, roaring supporters that flock to the games.

But how does one apply this principle to travel, and what does it have to do with experiential travel available to all?

The answer is reading.

The first step – I will go so far as to say the crucial step – to experiential travel is the stimulation of a fertile and receptive mind. Sowing the seeds of interest that will bloom into astonished wonder!

It is within everyone’s means to take advantage of a library, book exchange, 2nd hand book store, garage sale or retail store to access a world of immersive travel experiences.

Reading passport

Populate your reading passport with visa stamps from an unlimited number of exotic destinations. Visit:

Paris. Tramp the cobbled lanes of Montmartre along with Joanne Harris in The Lollypop Shoes.

Prague. Transport yourself to the authentic Prague suburb of Malá Strana and relive the experiences of The Good Soldier Švejk.

Vienna. Stroll the cultured streets of Austria’s capital with artist Gustav Klimt as guide in J Sydney Jones’ The Empty Mirror.

Cesky Krumlov. Have your back scrubbed by Marketa Pichlerova in her mother’s public bathhouse in Linda Lafferty’s tragic The Bloodletter’s Daughter.

Kyoto. Duck respectfully into a Kyoto ochaya – without the need for an invitation – and be entertained by the exquisite skills of a maiko in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.

Hong Kong. Find a job in one of the massive European trading houses in Hong Kong following the First Opium War with James Clavell in his monumental work Tai-Pan.

Mumbai. Order a coffee in Leopold Café, scene of the vicious 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, in the company of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram.

Jaipur. Join the throngs in Rajasthan’s Pink City to gawk at the Palace of the Winds in M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions.

Ayutthaya. Fly north of Bangkok to the ancient capital of mystical Thailand in Axel Alywen’s The Falcon of Siam.

Kuala Lumpur. Join An Mei in navigating racial tensions that rocked the Malaysian capital throughout the 1960s in Chan Ling Yap’s Bitter-Sweet Harvest.

Mongolia. Sip on blood from a small incision on your horses neck as you race across the Mongolian steppes in Conn Iggulden’s Wolf of the Plains.

Istanbul. Slide surreptitiously through the streets of Istanbul’s old town as you discover where Vlad Ţepeş, better known as Dracula, was imprisoned as a boy in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

There are countless more destinations to be travelled on every metro ride, during lunch breaks and in the evening before bed. Experiential travel starts on the pages of these and other books, where destinations are populated with characters that will show you how to live a destination, rather than merely seeing it.

They will cajole you into losing yourself in a treasure trove of enticing tales all the while planting an important seed in your subconscious: the understanding that real destinations are not merely a collection of must-see tick boxes, but the repository of generations of emotions, struggles, victories, defeats, births, deaths…

All of which, holistically, has resulted in that special, indescribable, jaw-dropping moment that you will experience with all your senses when you transcend being a tourist and become a traveller!

I will leave you to ponder these words from Charles Caleb Colton, “Those who visit foreign nations, but who associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs; they… return home with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds.”


Stay tuned for the 2nd in this 3-part series on how to become a traveller. 


  1. What a great great post! Indeed I find that all my guests crave this idea of experiencing the area rather than just rushing through… Very important and interesting post my friend!

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