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Transformative travel: concepts and market opportunities for NSW national parks

For information about this research, email Dr. Isabelle Wolf.

Transformative travel in parks

Many park systems worldwide have a dual statutory mandate both to provide for visitor enjoyment and for the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. Promoting the benefits of park visitation is increasingly important as a means for cultivating a constituency for parks, as well as for fostering positive change in the community through outdoor recreation.

A recent and noteworthy development in the management of park visitation is the concept of 'transformative/transformational travel'. A transformation can be understood as a form of personal change with potentially wide implications for society. Achieving personal transformation may be a primary, intentional motivation for participants in recreational travel activities in parks, or it may be a secondary and incidental outcome of recreation driven by other motivations.

Research aims

The aim of this review was to understand markets for transformative travel (tourism and recreation) in parks, what experiences foster transformation, and what associated outcomes can benefit parks. This knowledge underpins strategies to provide, measure and convey benefits of visiting and conserving parks to our community. The focus was on health and wellness, spiritual, cultural/indigenous and volunteer travel.

Further, a review (literature and websites) was undertaken of innovative transformative travel experiences that can be developed to attract visitors to national parks in NSW.

Research sample and methodology

Original research papers in English language journals about transformational travel were sourced from online electronic databases including Google Scholar and ISI Web of Knowledge. Amongst other the following key words were used for the search: 'tourism', 'travel', 'sojourning', 'change', 'transformation', 'transform', 'transformative', 'transformational', 'outcome', 'benefit', 'improvement', 'travel' and 'immersion', 'experiences' and 'park'. These were coupled with 'volunteer', 'voluntourist', 'voluntourism', 'volunteering', 'learning', 'educational', 'cultural', 'creative', 'authentic', 'social', 'religious', 'spiritual', 'indigenous', 'pilgrimage', 'wellness', 'wellbeing', 'health', 'walking', and '(nature-based) physical activity'.

The first stage of this review focussed on papers describing the results of primary research regarding transformational travel experiences, published in academic journals. The reference lists of the articles were then examined to find additional papers, and research not available electronically, such as books. The review was then expanded beyond the main key words, and also to secondary research papers and those published elsewhere but in peer-reviewed journals such as student theses, and conference proceedings.

More than 200 publications on health and wellness, spiritual, cultural/indigenous and volunteer travel were sourced that way.

Where does transformation take place

Overall, we found that the park visitor experience, if managed appropriately, provided conditions under which personal transformation is known to occur; that is, in unfamiliar, awe-inspiring or challenging circumstances that significantly contrast with people's ordinary lives, and which enable deep reflection and provide an escape from people's every-day lives.

Who participates in transformative travel

Transformative travel appealed to a broad market offering opportunities to be inclusive of many members of the community. Demographics, characteristics and motivations of participants varied with the type of transformative travel as presented in Figure 1.

Diagram listing types of travel in table form

Figure 1: Demographics, characteristics and motivations of participants in transformative travel experiences including health and wellness travel, nature-based physical activity, spiritual travel, cultural and indigenous travel experiences and volunteering/voluntourism.

Experiential factors that transform participants

Specific characteristics of experiences were identified as fostering transformation, most prominently various types of immersion including: general immersion, participatory, active, passive, social, cultural and interactive immersion. Immersion featured highly in all transformative travel typologies especially in volunteering/voluntourism. Physical, environmental, mental and emotional challenges were found to foster transformation, particularly those that took place in natural and rural environments. The opportunity for regular, repeated participation was another important feature of transformative travel, especially of nature-based physical activity and spiritual travel.

What type of transformations do participants experience

Transformation extended to many aspects of an individual's personal life, especially their health and well-being. Transformative experiences in parks can provide the community with important opportunities to increase their physical, mental, and social well-being. However, personal and community benefits of park visits, particularly from incidental physical activity, are not necessarily obvious to all community members, indicating the necessity for effective communication. A list of benefits was collated to direct monitoring efforts towards the more common benefits that can be accrued from health and wellness, cultural/indigenous, spiritual and volunteer travel.

Innovative transformative park visitor experiences

The review of innovative transformative travel experiences identified a range of market applications for parks. This included for example interpretive meditation and barefoot walks, yoga experiences, holistic physical activity and fitness experiences, creative cultural experiences and programs that combine aspects of different types of transformative travel such as Artist-in-Residency programs.

In a related study, a special model of thematically connected guided tours offered by NSW NPWS was found to exhibit a high potential to transform participants, and may, thus, serve as a best-practice model for transformative guided tours. These tours offer an opportunity for regular, repeated participation during challenging and immersive activities, thus combining many of the experiential factors associated with transformation. Findings of this research were presented in: Wolf, I.D. & Stricker, H.K. & Hagenloh, G. (2015). Outcome-focussed national park experience management: transforming participants, promoting social well-being, and fostering place attachment. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 23, 358-381.

Page last updated: 14 April 2015