Preparing for transformative travel in a post COVID-19 world

Nancy McGehee, Ph.D.
Department Head, Professor

Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management

Virginia Tech University

Joelle Soulard, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor
Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

There is no denying that we are facing difficult times. Every day we hear more difficult news about the economy, the climate, and the way we are treating our fellow human beings. While this news and the events that spur it are keeping us at home for the time being, anyone who believes in resiliency and the power of hope knows that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. There will come a time when we can move about freely, interact, engage, and learn from each other, laugh with each other, and grow. 

As human beings, we know this to be true. As a researcher, we also know that it is important to thoughtfully create research questions, collect data, analyze the results, and share those results with the world around us in a way that makes sense and amplifies the opportunities ahead. While we are all shaken by COVID-19, recent studies suggest that travelers will emerge from this crisis longing for human connections and expressing a desire to engage in travel experiences where they can develop meaningful social interactions with destination residents [2]. Travelers also express their willingness to support businesses and organizations that implement fair wages, are actively engaged in fighting discrimination, socially empower their employees, and are ecologically friendly. Fortunately for us, we know that VIA International will be there, waiting, in the ready, with bold new directions and ideas that support these very values and initiatives. We also know that we will need the power of VIA experiences to recover and transform.

While this information is important, we wanted to dig a little deeper. In partnership with Via International and over 30 other non-profit agencies around the world, we conducted a multi-method study during the summer of 2019 that investigated the transformative power of certain kinds of travel. Transformative travel is gaining a lot of coverage in media and scientific research because of the tremendous potential it provides to foster peace and understanding across culture and encourage travelers to actively engage in travel experiences that are socially and environmentally sustainable [1].

Transformative travel offers opportunities for people to be pushed out of their comfort zone, become fully immersed in the local culture, engage in self-reflection, experience cross-cultural understanding, and gain a more tolerant worldview. Sound familiar? Of course it does, that’s what Via is all about!

Travelers are not the only group that benefit: from the destination residents’ perspective, the positive advantages of transformative travel happen when people want to genuinely learn about their communities, creating a sense of connection and cultural pride. Transformative tourism also supports local businesses by having travelers staying in small scale local lodging, making a conscious decision to favor tourism activities that are social empowering and economically fair to destination residents, working on leaving a small carbon footprint when traveling, employing local tour guides, and partnering with local NGOs/entrepreneurs to offer unique experiences. Once again, Via is hitting the nail on the head in terms of this type of travel, consciously engaging with the community culturally, socially, and economically. These objectives of transformative tourism align perfectly with VIA International’s objective of connecting travelers to community development work through voluntourism and civic engagement and present a crucial opportunity for the future of travel. 

While we approached this work in a variety of ways using several conventional methods, perhaps the most eye-opening results occurred when we asked 35 travelers to draw their transformative travel experience and take part in a sentence completion task, a decidedly unconventional approach! Thanks to their drawings and answers to sentence completions, travelers shared powerful symbols and images that explain their motivations to take part in transformative travel experiences. What we found was pretty amazing. The following are just a few examples (the names have been withheld for confidentiality) that highlight the importance of human connections and new perspectives, education, self-improvement, and social empowerment. We think you will enjoy reading these eye-opening and heartfelt reflections of past experiences that will help lead us toward the future of Via and transformative travel.

Human Connections and Gaining New Perspectives 

One traveler shared how their experience specifically with VIA International encouraged them to be more confident and move ahead with important life decisions. During the drawing activity of the study, this traveler drew individuals they met during their trip who gave them courage and explained it this way: