What is transformational travel?

Amid certifications and carbon measurement, it’s easy to lose sight of how the essence of travel can itself be a powerful force for good. Holly Tuppen explores the rising trend in transformational travel..

4 mins

When we pack our bags and leave the daily routine behind, we’re often embarking on a personal journey as much as a physical one. We don’t voice it much (what we’ve seen or tasted is much more palatable small talk than our spiritual state of mind), but this voyage of inner discovery is what makes travel so compulsive and life-affirming.

It’s also why travel has the potential to generate long-term change, whether that’s creating a deeper connection with nature, seeing beyond cultural stereotypes or gaining fresh perspective on our place in the world.

It’s an age-old concept. Our ancestors were nomadic, so getting from A to B wasn’t just an opportunity for renewal but an essential part of survival. In the UK, it’s believed that people travelled for self-renewal or reflection as far back as 5,000 years ago, given the processional pathways along The Ridgeway and other ancient trails to and from Avebury’s stone circle.  

A new term has helped refine the concept: transformational travel. According to the Transformational Travel Council (TTC), this means to “intentionally travel to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world”. Several years ago, TTC co-founders Michael Bennett and Jake Haupert combined their travel industry knowledge with ideas from Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey to create the HERO Travel Framework – to travel with Heart, fully Engaged, practising Resolve, and Open to the unknown. In basic terms, it means transformation can only happen when a traveller is open to learning before, during and after their journey.

Of course, anyone who’s been backpacking or deliberately headed into the unknown knows transformation is par for the course. It’s not something you sign up to or tick off, but a lingering aura that infiltrates your heart and mind every time the senses are tickled or full-blown knocked off their feet.

Spending time among indigenous communities and joining them in tasks that are part of their everyday life is one way to get another perspective on the world and consider your place within it (Alamy)

Spending time among indigenous communities and joining them in tasks that are part of their everyday life is one way to get another perspective on the world and consider your place within it (Alamy)

As wonderful as the freedom of the open road is, our travels are often restricted by time. Spontaneity and open-mindedness can be sidelined for rigid plans and ambitious schedules. The lure of social media doesn’t help. Travellers soon lose the ability, time and space needed to transform – the reason most of us are drawn to adventure in the first place.

Eric Rupp, the author of the Transformational Travel Journal, explains: “The places we go, the activities we do, the people we meet all matter and can have a deeply profound influence on us, but transformation is created from within. Travellers themselves create transformation.”

Having cottoned on to this and the rising trend in experiential travel, some tour operators and experience providers now incorporate a more profound sense of learning and change into itineraries. The sincerest seek long-term change for clients.

Amid the shifting sands and glowing grasses of the NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia, conservation-led lodge Wolwedans reinvented its ethos during COVID-19’s pause, emphasising consciousness and “the state of being aware and responsive to one’s surroundings”. New experiences include a Home and Heart tour, which explores their back-of-house sustainability ethos and activities such as laying a stone circle or gardening at the onsite community-run nursery.

Black Tomato’s Bring it Back trips help travellers answer big questions, including “How do I find a more sustainable lifestyle?”. In this case, the tour operator sends clients to Peru to learn about its indigenous and sustainable food culture. By going with a question in mind, travellers are more likely to take something important away with them.

For other specialists, the concept of transformation comes more naturally. The British Pilgrimage Trust invite people from all backgrounds and beliefs to “walk with intention” along local pilgrim routes. Co-founder Guy Hayward explains: “A pilgrimage is walking with purpose, going on an outer journey to find a new inner direction.” He points out that we often turn to yoga or silent retreats for a spiritual or personal journey, but you can access those things through movement, too.

At its simplest, transformational travel is about thinking deeper and being open – a mindset critical to exploring responsibly. Pilgrim-travel author Phil Cousineau perhaps puts it best in his foreword to the Transformational Travel Journal: “The dirty secret of travel is that so many go so far to feel so little. It does not have to be this way. If we prepare our imagination as carefully as we pack our bags, then we will experience, learn and remember far more.”

Mona Lewicka

Mona Lewicka

“My companion and I were driving a motorcycle through remote Bolivian mountains. A storm was brewing and night falling. We had no choice but to look for somewhere to camp. There was not much around but this small, ruined house, which we thought was abandoned. While we were putting our tent up, someone appeared. We had been particularly fearful about being vulnerable women in the middle of nowhere throughout the trip. We feared the worst as the man approached. However, as he came closer, we realised that he was bringing us a basket full of mandarins. He hardly spoke Spanish, but hospitality doesn’t need a language. After a quiet night, the man insisted we meet his mother, who was bed-bound and very elderly. On seeing us, her face lit up and she offered us potatoes and bread. This is exactly why I keep travelling the world: to see that we only fear the things we don’t know and that life lessons are everywhere. Travelling can transform our approach to people and life and connect us to them in the deepest of ways. Let’s allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to go with an open mind and heart so that we can connect, engage and eventually transform.”

Mona Lewicka is Brand Ambassador & Head of Partnerships at the Transformational Travel Council. She recounts an unexpected moment of transformation during her trip to Bolivia…

Reality check: Empowerment, not exploitation

It’s important for travellers to be mindful. Make sure any community or indigenous group you visit has control over what experiences they host, and they do so willingly. If you’re unsure, quiz tour operators before booking. Look for an ethical tourism policy that outlines how they work with indigenous and local groups or ask how they avoid exploitation and how tourism benefits the host community. Responsible travel is a two-way exchange, and ideally, experiences should be as transformative for the host as they are for the guest.

5 transformational trips you must try...

Himalayas (Shutterstock)

Himalayas (Shutterstock)

1. The Old Way, UK 

The British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT) offer guided walks on this 402km walking trail, which was rediscovered by BPT co-founder William Parsons while researching old maps. Churches along the Way offer pilgrims a bed for the night at a low cost.

2. Eremito, Italy 

Deep in the rolling emerald folds of Umbria, this carefully restored monastery is a hotel like no other. Most guests come alone, phones are forbidden, candlelit dinners are taken in silence and days drift between yoga, chanting and walking.  

3. Embercombe, UK 

This 50-acre valley in rural Devon helps guests transform heart, mind, and soul by connecting more deeply with nature on The Journey, a five-day initiation ritual encouraging participants to embrace their gifts and passions.  

4. Re.connect, Nepal & Switzerland

Monika Schaffner’s bespoke transformational trekking tours take clients on a conscious journey through the Himalaya or the Swiss Alps. Expeditions aim to facilitate a closer connection to nature and a change in perspective.

 5. Tierra del Volcán, Ecuador

Tierra del Volcán’s Inner Vision Quest, one of its Signature Journeys, is a 12-day trip where visitors embark on a voyage of self-discovery along with biking, indigenous community visits, horseriding and camping. 

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