Travel has always been about the expansion of one's perspective and understanding of human life. Just ask Mark Twain. In Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, he wrote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."
Now, travel companies are embracing the implicit concept underpinning our longing to harvest Provençal lavender and ascend Mount Kilimanjaro by marketing trips not only for adventure and escape but for personal transformation. Having connected with nature and explored new cultures, we arrive home not only with souvenirs but a shift in perspective, a deeper and more developed sense of self.
"Transformation — call it learning, personal growth, pushing yourself — has been there all along," Christina Beckmann, senior director of strategy and impact for the Adventure Travel Trade Association, told the Washington Post, "but as an industry, we weren't really looking at that."
The industry trend has lead to the formation of the Transformational Travel Collaborative (TTC), an organization that provides both travelers and travel companies with tools to encourage personal and professional development while on the road. The paradoxical connectivity of our age — we've never been more connected or more alone — is partly what's driving the transformational travel trend.
"In an age of so-called connectivity, we have never been more disconnected from humanity, and often, from ourselves," Drea Sobieski, founder of travel magazine Elsewhere, told Well+Good. Travel is now seen as a way to take a time out from "real life" and social media, she said.
"Today's culture is device- and pace-driven," Jake Haupert, TTC cofounder told Vogue. "We're disconnecting from ourselves, our relationships, nature, and culture. The external pieces of an itinerary don't reveal the inner journey a trip can inspire."
What it can inspire are feelings of meaning, holistic integration, and even awakening. And that aligns in with the wellness trends driving everything from the bespoke vitamins, feel-good crystals, and a better spring break. "We want to become the best versions of ourselves, and travel can allow us to do this," Sobieski said.
Since the economy bottomed-out in 2008, people have begun to prioritize the accumulation of experiences rather than things, but not all travel experiences are created equal. Snacking on olives in Porto does not have the same effect as working in a vinho verde vineyard.
"The most interesting shifts occur when travelers engage in meaningful dialogue with people who have a non-Western perspective," managing director of the Americas for GeoEx, Jennine Cohen, told Vogue. "This allows our travelers to start to see the world less in black and white, and to begin to appreciate how nuanced many issues are when seen from very different perspectives."
This kind of experience is also a neurological boon. Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist and professor who has studied the connection between creativity and international travel, told The Atlantic: "Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integregration of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms."
Cognitive flexibility is the mind's ability to leap between different ideas, a key component of creativity. But it's not just about being abroad, Galinsky added: "The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn't engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment."
Yet it's important to remember that you don't need a travel company to experience transformational travel. All you really need, as the long tradition of adventurers and wanderers before us has demonstrated, is a sense of openness.
"Travel is almost inherently transformational — if one embraces its uncertainty," Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding, told the Washington Post. "I don't think something called transformational travel that comes with six days of travel, an itinerary and boxed lunches is bad, but when you open yourself up to serendipity and blunders, I think it's a much more meaningful experience."
That said, some of us are comfortable with greater degrees of chaos than others. For those seeking transformation in their four days off from work, a transformation-focused travel company might be the ticket.