There’s an old Chinese proverb that says travelling thousands of miles is a better way to learn and understand the world than reading thousands of books. Driven by millennial travellers and affluent tourists in new markets, experience is the key motivation for travelling today, as consumers increasingly look to amass experiences rather than things. This shift towards experience-rich travel is a boon for the global tours and activities market, reportedly growing +9% annually to a value of $150 billion, according to Skift Research estimates.

Research by TripAdvisor finds that travellers are looking for a mixture of new experiences and unique visits to iconic places. According to its 2018 Travel Trend report, the most popular experience bookings were skip-the-line passes for key Rome attractions, Chicago architecture boat tours and visits to iconic buildings such as the Sagrada Familia in Spain, France’s Eiffel Tower and Empire State building in the US. But the biggest growth was in bookings for food tours and cooking classes. “We’re seeing more travellers balancing their itineraries with a mix of classic sightseeing and more unique local experiences,” said Laurel Greatrix, TripAdvisor Director of Communications. “Of course, travellers heading to Rome want to explore the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, but they’re also booking experiences like food tours to enhance their trip and see the city like a local.”

We’re seeing more travellers balancing their itineraries with a mix of classic sightseeing and more unique local experiences

Laurel Greatrix, TripAdvisor Director of Communications

Intrepid Travel has reported a +20% increase in bookings for its Real Food Adventure tours which include experiences such as bottling your own wine in Spain or making soba noodles in Japan. TV shows are boosting the popularity of foodie destinations, with Netflix hits such as Salt Fat Acid Heat, Somebody Feed Phil, Chef’s Table, and Ugly Delicious inspiring new culinary experiences.

Food is becoming part of the new definition of adventure travel, which is less about adrenaline and more about “experiencing a new culture”, according to a recent study by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). This drive to discover new cultures and experiences is leading travellers to become increasingly adventurous in their choice of destination. Luxury travel agency Virtuoso reports that the primary motivation for affluent travellers is to explore new destinations, with Japan the top emerging destination for 2019, followed by Croatia, Portugal, Iceland and Egypt.

According to Ctrip, Chinese tourists are venturing further than ever before with a +400% increase in trips to see the Northern Lights between 2016 and 2017. Polar travel is getting more popular across many nationalities, with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators reporting that the number of people visiting Antarctica has increased +15% between 2016 and 2017.

Luxury brands are increasingly considering experience as part of their offer. LVMH recently announced its takeover of luxury travel operator Belmond (formerly known as Orient Express), while its luggage brand Rimowa has recently launched the first “experiential suitcase”. Through a collaboration with travel gifting service Skyhour, purchasers of the $6,000 Rimowa + Skyhour case can get 12 hours of free travel every month for a year.

Experience is everywhere in travel, but it’s too often used as a buzzword rather than a real consideration in trip planning and customer service. Travellers are moving on from run-of-the-mill attractions and the overpopulated tourist trail, instead seeking out ways to get under the skin of their destination, through exploration, food and culture.