Uncovering the transformational power of tourism

This is an article from the magazine ‘Travel to Tomorrow‘.

Travelling does something to us. Holidays, travelling, tourism … the mere thought stimulates the imagination. We long for these moments and often reminisce about them thereafter. Some experiences leave a greater impact in our lives than others. What or who plays a role herein? What makes some experiences stay with us forever? In order to learn from real stories, 24 students and 20 staff members from VISITFLANDERS set out to listen to stories of over 1,600 experiences. Here Vincent Nijs and Greet Vandenrijt provide a few insights that showcase the power of tourism.

Vincent Nijs and Greet Vandenrijt

The intense experience of a place

The most important factor for a powerful travel experience is the intense experience of a particular place. This is clear for 50% of the travel stories. In the first instance, the culture (lifestyle and values) and the sociopolitical-economic situation (22%) is the most dominant factor. The experience of nature (18%) and art and heritage (11%) also creates a very lasting impression. Travellers are moved by the stunning beauty of the natural world, by the art created by people, and by the appeal of a lifestyle. Also the confrontation with poverty, war and terror, insecurity and environmental damage has a significant impact. The fact that it is different/ unknown plays a central role in the intensity of the experience of the place. The stories teach us that ‘being different’ often lies in small things, that we regard as ordinary or commonplace, such as learning how to ride a bike, eating chips on the street, the multicultural street life … It helps us to value these small things, that we often overlook.

Warm encounters with people

Encounters with other people play a central role in 30% of the stories. Not the bombastic experiences make memorable moments, but a series of brief, minor, welcoming moments and encounters with other travellers, residents, guides, taxi drivers or other people from the tourism service sector. Even if the contact is fairly brief, a strong connection may be created between the people concerned. Links that last long after the trip may be made. The surprise is the ‘difference’ of the people that are met, and also the hospitality and open-heartedness. A genuine welcome, commitment and a willingness to help that goes much further than expected. The attitude of the host makes a huge difference. People who know their place, who are proud of it and who welcome their guests can leave a lasting impression. This listening exercise shows that, within tourism, every encounter has the power to be a significant moment that is embedded in the memory of the traveller. Also the close bonds formed with the travelling group are central. Many of the stories are about breaking out from the routine and having the time and opportunity for long conversations, leading to people getting to see and experience one another in a different light. The travellers break through old roles and discover new sides to one another.

Challenge, inspiration, seeing things differently, slowing down, reflection

The activity or travel format is the determining factor in the impact of the travel experiences in one in five of the stories. This concerns activities that challenge us to push physical or mental boundaries, or which inspire us and contribute towards personal growth or a better world. Travel arrangements that encourage us to slow down and relax, enable encounters with other people, immerse us in nature and culture and allow us to see things differently, whether it’s a place or people; these go hand-in-hand with an impactful travel experience. It could be cycling and walking, long boat or train journeys, back-packing … Just having the time to focus on what people experience and reflect on it is of crucial importance.

The power of travel

An impactful experience goes hand-in- hand with strong emotions. People feel overwhelmed, connected, moved, inspired, proud … These emotions ensure that the experiences stay in our memories long after the trip. The impact is overwhelmingly positive (92%) and often very significant. Four in ten experiences still have a ‘very high’ or ‘high’ impact today. Almost four in ten have a ‘reasonably high’ impact. Travellers gain new insights, another world-view and greater selfawareness or confidence. They feel a strong connection with others. On this basis, they sometimes opt for different lifestyle choices and approach things differently. Travelling, therefore, has the power to bring about profound and positive change in both people and their environments.

From the analysis of over 1600 experiences it is clear that 3 elements determine an impactful travel experience:

  1. the experience of a place (green)
  2. encounters with people (pink)
  3. activities or travel formulas that inspire, challenge or invite the traveller to experience ‘something different’ in terms of a place or its residents. (blue)

These findings are just an introduction to the results of the large-scale listening exercise. Curious about the rest of the study and the stories?


Transformerende kracht schema_en

Travel experiences: Finding meaning in Norwegian nature

“At a stunning wild-camping location in Norway, I sat alone on the banks of a stream, daydreaming. Suddenly I felt overwhelmed. I realised that I was in a place, with its rocks, water, moss and waterfall, which had been there for centuries, perhaps even millennia. I felt part of a larger entity, the cosmos. A beautiful, gratifying and fulfilling feeling. The experience enabled me to see, at a later stage, that it is possible to have a spiritual experience without belief and religion. It gives me strength even now in my work in a hospital, where I care for sick people.”

Travel experiences: Cycling to new experiences

“After a serious illness, I set myself the goal to cycle over a few days from our home in Limburg to the sea, in a group. The cycle trip was very challenging as the weather was awful. When we arrived in Cadzand after 3 days of pouring rain, I was overwhelmed by a sense of happiness that I had been physically able to complete the journey. Since then, we’ve been on lots of cycling holidays as a couple or with a group, to discover the world in a different way. The link between sport and discovering new places is a very enriching experience for me.”

A heavy price for breakfast

“We were with friends on a trip to Croatia. During breakfast in our apartment, we started talking about our grandparents. Everyone had a story to tell; a grandma with Alzheimer’s, grandparents they’d never known, grandpa always causing arguments, … After wiping away a few tears, we all felt quite relieved. I think we had seen another side of one another. We had been friends for over 6 years but there were still things between us that we’d never talked about.”


Take us with you to a moment that was important to you, during a trip. Tell us about a moment that you cherish. What happened? Who was with you? Where were you? What sounds, scents and colours were there? Was there beauty, art, nature? What did you feel? What do you feel now that you’re talking about it? What impact does this experience still have on your life today?