Experiential Travel, Adventure Tourism and Outdoor Recreation

All of these activities have the power to transform participants. The difference is on what they aim to change.

JP Fortin

JP Fortin

Owner + CEO

Published on

Nov 14, 2019

Filed Under

Update – January 2022: We’ve done a lot of work defining what makes an adventure ours over the past few years. Our new online course, The Role of the Adventure Guide, covers the adventure tourism context and how it relates to contexts like tourism, interpretation and outdoor recreation.


The difference between experiential travel, adventure tourism and outdoor recreation is often explained by looking at how far the participants have travelled to join the activity. Unless you work for a destination marketing organization tasked with increasing spending by non-resident as a form of economic development, it is a distinction without a difference. As experience providers, focusing on the distance travelled as the distinctive feature is short-sighted. When done well, all three have the power to transform our guests. What changes is the type of transformation each of them offers.

Unfortunately, we often get stuck on the extreme examples of what each has to offer. Tourism gets reduced to the mass tourism picture of resorts and coach buses along with superficial engagement. The outdoors becomes about expeditions, survival, reaching summits and pushing the limits of what is possible. We need to get back to the basics.

Tourism, as defined by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, is going to a destination outside of our usual environment for business, leisure or other personal purposes. It’s about escaping daily life, not necessarily about travelling to faraway lands. That desire to explore is something that outdoor recreation, adventure tourism and experiential travel all have in common.

Of course, the motivations of the participants will change depending on whether they are on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation or on a day trip to a region they visit a few times a year. This will change some of the activities they may choose and a returning visitor is more likely to go deeper into exploring the region’s lesser-known places. What they look for in the experience remains very similar however and a great product will appeal to locals and visitors alike.

Experiential Travel

This is a sector of tourism that has grown and moved beyond a niche market in the last 20 years but that has been around for centuries. In many ways, it is the modern art of ancient travel.

Experiential travel is a collection of memorable activities that create connections with places and people. Memories are created by the emotions we feel during the adventure, rather than by “doing” something. Engaging the senses and reflecting on what we’ve done are the two key elements that differentiate an experience from an activity.

Generally speaking, outdoor recreation and adventure tourism are both forms of experiential tourism.

Adventure Tourism

Adventure travel is a type of experiential travel that includes at least two of the following three elements: physical activity, natural environment, and cultural immersion. It often involves some physical or mental exertion and a willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone.

Adventures are not necessarily about reaching summits and extreme conditions. The way we see it, adventures are about doing things that are new and different for each of us, doing things that can be a little scary but that also makes us curious to explore further.

It is about creating a connection with places and people. It can be about discovering a new culture or simply about creating a deeper bond with the region we live in.

Outdoor Recreation

Outdoor recreation and adventure travel are closely related. After all, adventures often include outdoor activities: taking a group for a walk through an urban park or an interpretive hike, heading out on a snowshoe tour or rafting down a river.

Adventure tourism shares a lot with various sectors of outdoor recreation and adventure programming. These include:

  • outdoor recreation: recreational activities undertaken for pleasure that generally involve some level of intentional physical exertion and occur in nature-based environments outdoors.
  • outdoor education: experiential learning in, for, or about the outdoors.
  • environmental education: a process that allows individuals to explore environmental issues, engage in problem-solving and take action to improve the environment.
  • adventure therapy: using the natural environment to help individuals overcome cognitive, behavioural, social, and affective disorders.

Transformations

All of these have the power to transform participants. The difference is on what we aim to change. Recreation usually focuses on physical activities (e.g. fitness or technical skills), education aims to change the way people think, therapy how they behave and adventure tourism how people feel and connect with places and people.