x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Today’s travellers seek to interact with the communities they visit

No longer content to while away their time on package deals, instead seeking authentic experiences.

Backed by the white buildings that line the corniche of Mutrah district, fishermen and delivery staff work near the Mina Sultan Qaboos in downtown Muscat. Silvia Razgova / The National
Backed by the white buildings that line the corniche of Mutrah district, fishermen and delivery staff work near the Mina Sultan Qaboos in downtown Muscat. Silvia Razgova / The National

As our world shrinks into a “global village” thanks to a surge in technology and travel options, a rising middle class with higher disposable incomes and a deep-rooted quest for something bigger, better, more interesting and authentic, travel operators around the world are scrambling to redefine luxury travel.

To discerning travellers today, luxury travel goes beyond staying in the top suite of hotels and enjoying the best spas and fine dining options. It is about seeking the rare experiences on our planet. It is about finding those hidden nuggets, pristine paradises that may be known to the local residents but are off the charts when it comes to conventional conducted tours.

Luxury, for today’s traveller, takes root in the richness of a country’s heritage and culture. Travellers are increasingly turning away from the cookie-cutter options and repackaged holiday experiences to strike out on their own in search of the more cultural and timeless. This is borne out by tourism statistics and trend reports, endorsed by travel pundits and reinforced by personal experience.

Take the case of Oman. Although the country has many luxurious properties, they are seldom branded as such, nor indeed are they uniquely known for luxury. Yet – according to a report just last week by the World Travel and Tourism Council – Oman is set this year to achieve the strongest growth rate in tourism and travel among the countries of the Middle East. Its contribution to the country’s GDP is expected to rise by 10.2 per cent, nearly twice that of the Middle East region and more than double the world average. The WTTC projects a 28 per cent increase in travel within Oman by the end of 2018.

The icing on the cake as far as Oman’s emerging luxury/culture tourism industry is concerned was Muscat being named the second best city to visit (after London) by Lonely Planet in 2012. The results are perhaps not as surprising as they might appear at first glance. It is the people and their adherence to local culture and their natural environment that draws visitors.

In other words, culture, simplicity and authenticity are the new watchwords driving the growth of the important travel and tourism sector on a global scale. These are characteristics one can find in many countries and across many regions – whether it is Japan or Iceland or Timbuktu, for that matter.

Whole new segments of travel have evolved in recent times based on the interaction with local people in interesting settings and environments. The goal is to create connections and imbue travel with ever more meaningful experiences. The customer demands greater engagement, involvement and the intrinsic local touch that adds just the right streak of magic to their holiday experiences.

As luxury travel moves beyond the trappings of luxury that the travel sector has perfected, we are reminded time and again that the most valued luxury is the experience itself. The best “travel” is not travel at all – it is feeling the experience deep in your bones and understanding how it changes you, rather than the event itself. Present-day luxury and culture travelers who step out of their familiar environs to learn something new about the places they visit quite often end up learning something new about themselves instead. And revelling in the experience.

So out of the mould of traditional tourists come these cultural or creative tourists, as they are sometimes called, who are clearly more interactive with local residents. Industry today, however, is yet to catch up with this paradigm shift. The focus of investments still seems to be on traditional tourism-related components such as welcome drinks, pillow selections or a complex mélange of spa treatments.

It is highly encouraging to note at the same time that the more perceptive among the leading travel industry players are sitting up and taking notice. One expert has said the days are long gone when luxury meant a standardised experience that mutes the vibrancy and personality of a destination.

Hotels are gradually promoting themselves as portals to the local community and transforming themselves into living exhibits of the local culture.

The hospitality industry realises that it must deliver a more immersive, layered travel experience for more educated and connected travellers. If it is not a necessity, it is now understood to be a competitive advantage, as the travel intelligence company Skift’s Trends Report notes.

Tourism authorities and countries are also moving to counter homogenisation of the travel experience. Some are pursuing careful planning to blend national culture and heritage and interaction with local people into a tourist’s experience.

Indeed, embracing cultural tourism can have a lasting impact on the industry and travellers alike. Today’s traveller demands – and quite often finds – a pleasing medley of simplicity, authenticity and culture that defines “been there, done that” like never before.

Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi is the the chairman of Rimal Investments

business@thenational.ae

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