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'Transformative travel' is latest twist on making vacations more meaningful

Guided trips, from Montana to Sri Lanka, encourage travelers to reflect and do good in the world.

Austin Adventures leads "transformational" trips such as this

Austin Adventures leads "transformational" trips such as this one in Yellowstone National Park.  Photo Credit: Austin Adventures/Austin Adventures

As the senior director of strategy and impact for the Adventure Travel Trade Association, Christina Beckmann was well aware of the growing demand for ever-deeper travel experiences — what some in the industry call transformational or transformative travel.

After all, she had experienced it herself — not once, but twice.

"I had my first transformation on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon," Beckmann said. "I quit my job, and here I am today."

Her second occurred this spring, when Beckmann, who lives in San Francisco, joined an Antarctic expedition for industry leaders."I've been talking about climate for a while, but after being in Antarctica, the urgency I feel now is so sharp — it's driven me to real action," she said.

Beckmann believes many travelers hope to be changed in some way.

"Transformation — call it learning, personal growth, pushing yourself — has been there all along, but as an industry, we weren't really looking at that," she said.

Not until now, at least.

The Global Wellness Summit's 2018 trend report labeled "transformative wellness travel" a top trend, calling it a step beyond "authentic" or "experiential" travel — one that reaches "a deeper emotional level."

A new series of trips from Montana-based outdoor tour operator Austin Adventures is a case in point. For its "Life is Good Vacations," Austin Adventures has partnered with the Life is Good lifestyle brand, known for its stick figures, optimistic slogans and outdoorsy bent. The tours, seven in total, visit Yellowstone National Park, the Canadian Rockies, Utah's national parks and Costa Rica.

Emphasizing 'Superpowers'

While the branded trips overlap with much of what Austin Adventures already offers, and prices are the same, the groups will be smaller and the contents will emphasize Life is Good's oft-promoted "Superpowers," which include gratitude, authenticity and courage, said Kasey Austin, the tour company's vice president of operations. 

One addition to the trips will be "solo walks," where guests spread out and have time alone to reflect on words found on cards placed along the trail. "The cards will have the superpowers on them and a question on the back that makes you stop and think," Austin said.

In a similar vein, Beckmann cites custom tour developer Henry Comyn, of Joro Experiences, who told her about two upcoming trips that include extra time for guests to reflect — one a culinary exploration of Sri Lanka and the other a horseback trip through remote villages.

"At the end of each day, around a campfire in their tented desert camps, the guides will invite discussion and reflection about what they've seen," Beckmann said.

Taking the goal of transformation even further is the Transformational Travel Council, a consulting and speaking platform founded by Michael Bennett and Jake Haupert of Seattle. From there, the two have spun off a travel company, Explorer X, which will start offering transformational-minded tours in 2019.

Among the company's offerings will be Muddy Shoe Adventures — multiday, small-group excursions that combine challenging physical activities with immersive cultural experiences and group discussions about the experiences and how they might be applied once the travelers return home. Destinations include Tasmania, Patagonia, Utah, Oregon and Colorado.

Bennett and Haupert, who both have several years of experience leading adventure tours, plan to publish a guidebook of sorts to prepare people for deeper travels. The book will cover preparation, the trip itself and the reflection and action that they hope will follow when the travelers return home.

Embracing uncertainty

Author Rolf Potts, best known for his book "Vagabonding," which exhorts long-term, unstructured travel, is skeptical about the potential of guided trips to bring about transformation.

"Travel is almost inherently transformational — if one embraces its uncertainty," said Potts. "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."

Potts calls the notion "very American," but he's willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. "If you can add to your life by thinking past the superficial level of vacation, then that can be a good thing, even if your transformation has an itinerary," he said.

Proponents of transformational travel say the key lies in taking the change it inspires beyond the personal and into the community.

"That's what presents the greatest relevance," Beckmann said. "What are we as an industry doing to give travelers not just a great time, but to awaken in them passion and energy to do good in this world? That's possibly our greatest opportunity right now."

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