Transforming travel by embracing responsibility



30. January 2018

Read time

8 min


Travel industry, Business strategy

'Transformational travel' is the next opportunity for business strategy in travel. In a market crowded with 'novel experiences' people seek travel that will shift their world view and inspire personal growth. But focusing on travellers' needs alone is not enough when there are other actors in play. A socially responsible approach to travel is an effective business strategy for travel companies, supports and sustains the host communities, and facilitates transformational experiences for travellers.

Traveling has become a commodity, more accessible and more affordable than ever before. It is estimated that by 2020, 1.5 billion people will travel each year [Lonely Planet]. Travel businesses embraced the Experience Economy to appeal to customer needs. However, travellers are no longer fulfilled by these 'experiences' and are seeking something more meaningful than pre-packaged entertainment.

Beyond the Experience Horizon

The Experience Economy emerged 20 years ago as the next step in the progression of economic value. Like goods, services became a commodity. With the rise of this new wave, Experiential Travel became the travel trend of 2016. It was not enough to travel to the far side of the earth. Instead, travellers looked for meaningful experiences as a way to interact with different cultures and ideas.

Travellers, in particular Millennials, have shifted their interest from 'things' to experiences. A recent study shows that more than 78% of millennials would choose to spend money on a desirable experience over buying something desirable (Eventbrite survey). ). Companies like Airbnb embraced this opportunity. In 2016 they introduced activities and travel experiences organized by hosts, also referred to as “micro-entrepreneur”.

However it has become increasingly difficult to surprise and delight travellers as they become experience veterans.

What are they really looking for? A recent survey from Raft showed that 58% of people travel to expand their worldview by connecting with new people, cultures and ideas. The pursuit of happiness is no longer about possessions and career status. It's about self-actualization, the greatest need of all to reach one's full potential. The emphasis is on finding the most value for every dollar spent because people view travel as an investment in themselves.

Value = Benefit/Price

Value can be created two ways - lower the price or increase the benefit. As the availability of experiential travel rises, the perceived value of unique transformational experiences increases. So how do businesses provide the most value for travellers?

By taking a service design approach, businesses must look at the stages before and after the experience in order to design transformational experiences. For example, Michael Bennett, co-founder of the Transformational travel collaborative (TTC) and vice president at Nomad Hill, identifies a three-phase process in travel: the departure, the initiation and the return. Referred to as ‘The hero’s journey’, the time to reflect and implement new knowledge after returning from the trip is just as important as the experience itself. The Raft survey supports this; it found that 77% of people take time to meditate on their learnings once back from a travel.

"Transformational travel is any travel experience that empowers people to make meaningful, lasting changes in their life."

Transformational Travel Collaborative (TTC)

Transformational travel is the next step in the evolution. An introspective experience satisfies the highest emotional need for self-actualization. Travel businesses have the opportunity to shift their role and guide transformation.

Price tag for Culture

Transformational travel has the potential to enrich lives because it is based on principles of human connection. However, this cultural exchange may be better in theory than in practice. Currently, it does not benefit everyone involved. Often, travellers immerse themselves as spectators in a crash course hosted by the community rather than participating. Tourism, if not consciously organized, remains at an entertainment level.

Bali for instance, became a touristic destination in the 1970s and since then has fallen victim to mass tourism. Temples visited by the millions disrupt the practices of the Balinese people who are deeply religious. Some locals, working as tour guides, use Polynesian practices of giving out flower garlands to welcome their guests. They adopted this foreign practice as if it was their own in order to meet expectations and keep up with mass tourism. Without understanding the long-term consequences, they can damage their own heritage and traditions.

As demonstrated, tourism can cause exploitation, economic disruption and homogenization of culture for the hosting community.

It is not enough to focus on customers and their needs. Companies must prepare a socially responsible strategy that benefits the needs of all stakeholders, long-term. An approach that goes hand in hand with the concept of Responsible Tourism.

"[Responsible] Tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities"

by World tourism organization (U.N.W.T.O)

Social responsibility as a Business Strategy

At Raft, we bring strategic thinking to our client projects by looking at the bigger picture. We understand the values for business and define opportunities for the future.

Through successful client collaborations in travel, we have learned that businesses centred on responsible tourism can be a source of opportunity, innovation and competitive advantage.

It improves marketing, customer loyalty, richer partnerships and increases investor engagement. More than 88% of consumers think companies should try to achieve their business goals while improving society and the environment. (Forbes) Last but not least, it is a moral imperative.

So, how can companies integrate a responsible mind-set in their business strategy?

1. Educate. Build knowledge about local customs and traditions. Inspire respect for the host destination and its history. Lead understanding and empathy towards socio-economic difficulties. Enable conscious decisions to lower the footprint on nature.

Recently, the organization 'Inspired by Iceland' started a sustainable initiative that offers tourists to take the 'Icelandic pledge'. An online agreement where tourists can sign and promise to travel responsibly when visiting the country. By creating awareness and educating travellers who want to travel responsibly but don't know how, this proactive approach sets positive expectations for travel behaviour.

2. Facilitate. A good example is the Turtle beach Lodge where guests pay to volunteer in monitoring the health of sea turtles and protect them from poachers. A part of this money is donated to COTERC. The same organization offers locals who would be poachers an alternative source of income. They fuel the money towards the local community to help them reach their goals, stop poaching, and attract eco-tourists.

3. Collaborate. Bridge partnerships with government bodies and policy makers and design a strategy for society. Endorse businesses to reach sustainable efforts. Resist the temptation to own all aspects of the industry and seek advice from experts.

Principles in Action

Recently, Raft partnered up with a travel company in Cuba. The client is aiming to shift its core business proposition to tours and experiences over booking flights and hotels. In anticipation of this new direction, we developed an example of how they might incorporate social responsibility and transformational experiences into their strategy.

Let us share a couple of insights about Cuba. Tourism contributes greatly to the growth of Cuba's economy, with more than 4 million tourists visiting in 2017 (Cuban government). Private businesses are making the most of this opportunity. Among them, organic farmers are successfully growing their activity. They export their goods as well as provide locally grown produce to privately run restaurants called 'paladares'. However, due to the ‘special period’ and the trade embargo on Cuba, the country still faces some difficulties. Restrictions by the Cuban government are a barrier for private businesses to be successful. For farmers, this means that they still rely on manual labour due to the lack of infrastructure and modern machinery.


Let's imagine a traveller in Cuba who is passionate about coffee. Through a travel agency, she joins a week-long programme at a coffee plantation to learn more about its history and the Cuban culture. By working side-by-side, the traveller gains a unique perspective while the farmer gets extra assistance. However, how can the travel agency push the relationship beyond a one-off experience? How can it guide a transformational experience for both the traveler and the farmer by following the three principles?

First, in designing a responsible experience, the travel agency must educate the traveller about the history of farming in Cuba and its traditions. The travel agency sends her a 'guide book' before departure. This guide book includes material about basic farming techniques. It also introduces the farmer that she is going to meet. The relationship begins even before the meeting, creating a personal connection through empathy.

Second, the travel agency - as a certified representative - guides the connection between locals and travellers. By fostering a local network, residents of the community are empowered to be 'guides' themselves and share their knowledge. This ensures that the needs and expectations of both sides are respected, as well as providing a channel for employment. It's important to have continuous touchpoints with customers even when the experience is over. The travel industry certifies private businesses to recognize them for operating responsibly. A type of badge that can be displayed to increase the visibility in the market for reputable farmers, and a 'trademark' that raises the quality standards of the travel industry as a whole.

Third, the client collaborates with the government to define a long-term proposition of emerging co-ops of farmers in Cuba. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture could provide subsidies for farms that are part of the responsible tourism effort. Over time, the data gathered aids in making informed future investments, and ultimately contributes to the social and economic growth of Cuba.


More than ever, travel businesses must rethink experiences to be transformational. This is necessary to fulfil travellers' need for self-actualization. To be truly transformative, experiences will require the participation of all stakeholders. Instead of just travelling through, travellers enrich the economy of the host community. To achieve this, companies must embrace a socially responsible approach by integrating the principles of education, facilitation and collaboration. Only this provides a differentiated position in the market, economic benefit for the host community, and a truly meaningful experience for the traveller.


Transformational Travel Council

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore (1998, July-August). ‘Welcome to the Experience Economy'. Retrieved from

World tourism organization (U.N.T.W.O)

Michaela Trimble (2017, January 3). 'Why “Transformative Travel” Will Be the Travel Trend of 2017’

Roger Atwood (2017, October 28) ‘Organic or starve: can Cuba's new farming model provide food security?’ Retrieved from


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