Learning How Travel Can Transform You…

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A main theme for this year’s New York Travel Festival was transformative travel. The event was held in the Big Apple in late April. While there were a number of excellent panels and workshops, an overarching theme of the conference seemed to be changing yourself through travel and having a two-way street of positive influence with the communities you visit. One panel of note was The Science Behind Transformative Travel, which poised important questions and got me thinking about a number of issues relating to travel and how people can turn their yearly “vacation” into an annual “transformation.”

Transformative Travel

The panel was presented by Joe Diaz of AFAR, Ian O’Sullivan of Alternative Escapes, Mark Lakin of Epic Road, Dr. Lynn Minnaert, a tourism scholar at NYU’s Tisch Center, and Gabi Logan of Reward Expert and moderator of the seminar. During the hour, we looked at what makes a travel experience transformative and how people can experience this style of travel for themselves. Panelists also shared some enviable tales from the road that made me personally want to hop on a plane tomorrow for an Eat Pray Love-style adventure.

You may be thinking, “What exactly is transformative travel?” According to Dr. Minnaert, it’s when a traveler has a boundary that they push themselves across. This doesn’t have to entail skydiving or going on a solo pilgrimage around the world. It can be whatever makes you feel like you’re pushing yourself to do something you normally wouldn’t. If you never travel, this could be as simple as purchasing a passport and booking a plane ticket. Diaz also added that it’s a perspective shift and a mindset that starts with a spirit to embark on such a self-changing endeavor and immerse yourself in local culture.

Cultural Immersion

According to O’Sullivan, there are two ingredients that make up cultural immersion: curiosity and appreciation. Curiosity could be something like giving an authentic compliment to a local, which opens the possibility for further interaction. Appreciation and respecting local traditions — maybe trying to speak in the local language and dressing in the local fashion — can get you through the door to possibly having dinner in a local home or spending the day with them frequenting their favorite spots.


The human connection. Photo courtesy of pixelstar.

The Human Connection

One point I found really interesting was when Diaz discussed the human connection. When talking about a trip he took to Delhi, India, he noted this was the first time in his life he felt like nobody looked like him; however, this didn’t stop him from connecting. A local guide Diaz was with, *Raj mentioned he was an artist. When Diaz mentioned he would be interested in seeing the artwork, Raj was touched, saying, “Nobody has ever asked me that before.” The story ends with Diaz in Raj’s home looking at his works and drinking fresh squeezed juice from local fruits.

“Get your ass off the bus [tour] and see how many kitchen tables you can get into,” Diaz concluded.

The Epitome Of Transformative Travel

One of the audience’s favorite stories was one given by Lakin about visiting a livestock auction in Tanzania, Africa. He and friend decided to purchase an animal, solely to have a local experience. While the bulls were expensive and scary, the goats seemed doable and cost only $30 to $50. Once they purchased the goat, however, they realized they had no way to transport the animal, especially as it would inevitably have to go to bathroom. They decided to take the opportunity to change the life of a person who really needed it. In the end they ended up giving it to two children, a brother and sister. While Lakin and his friend were hesitant to gift the kids with the goat as he wasn’t sure they could take care of it, it was a single moment that changed Lakin’s mind. As he walked away from the siblings, the little boy ran after him, tugging on his arm. “I know I’ve never had a goat, but I always wanted one.”

This story is the epitome of transformative travel.


Theyyam ritual dance in India. Photo courtesy of freebird (bobinson).

Setting Yourself Up For A Transformative Travel Experience

There are a few steps a person can take to set themselves up to have a transformative travel experience.

Lakin recommends that travelers “Always save an errand to do, like getting a coat or flip flops. It will give you a point of interaction.” I loved this tip, so simple yet effective, as once you have a necessary topic of conversation anything could happen.

Moreover, learning 20 words in the local language shows locals you have respect for their culture, and can also give you more confidence to interact. Being present — as in, not having your head buried in a phone or map — also opens you up to the possibility of meeting a local, or at least further feeling the beat of the destination you’re in and witnessing the small nuances of daily life that might otherwise go unnoticed.

O’Sullivan recommended doing a homestay to have an economic impact on a local family, which also allows you to delve deeper into local culture. This also goes along with the theme of responsible travel, as getting rid of the middleman and using small, local companies allows all of your money spent — instead of a just a portion — to go directly into the communities that need it.

teff harvest ethiopia

Teff Harvest in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of A.Davey.

Lastly, Diaz advised believing in the kindness of strangers, as this allows for good things to happen. If you don’t have faith in humanity your feeling of connection will be lost, and you’ll close yourself off from ever possibly experiencing those small moments that really make the trip worth it. Because in the end it isn’t the helicopter tour or five-star hotel that moves you on the road, but knowing you’ve had a positive impact on the community you’ve visited, and that the community positively impacted you, too.

Transformative Travel At Home

Keep in mind, you don’t have to fly to Africa to have a transformative travel experience. The next time you’re in a taxi cab at home, Diaz recommended trying to figure out where your driver is from and Googling a few words in their local language. From there, start up a conversation. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised with the outcome of the interaction.

top Photo courtesy of HartwigHKD.

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