[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]ith iconic landmarks, fine dining and couture shopping galore, there are endless reasons why Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world. But when Ted Fang, chief executive of investment firm Tera Capital, headed to France, the usual tourist attractions barely registered on his itinerary.

An aviation and design enthusiast, Fang, who is also the chairman and founder of hospitality company Frontier Group, planned his trips around exclusive visits to the Airbus and Dassault Falcon jet production facilities. “I wanted to see for myself the process of how jets are built,” says Fang, who was treated to a private tour of Dassault’s Bordeaux facility last year. “It is quite a sight to have such a high-tech facility right in the middle of the wine country. The level of technology and know-how that the company has accumulated is truly amazing and the visit gave me a very good idea of what the people at Dassault think about when designing jets.

“These visits give me deeper insights into French craftsmanship, design and ideas. Their creative process is amazing – just look at their products.”

Seeking Authentic Experiences

From indulging in individual passions to seeking out immersive experiences while on vacation, the new breed of luxury travellers such as Fang redefining what it means to go on a holiday. A 2014 White Paper by American Express on travel trends reshaping the industry found that travellers were “specifically looking to immerse themselves in the destinations they visit and to travel like a local”.

DIP IN TRADITION The red-hued baths in the city of Beppu in Kyoto, Japan, are a cultural draw.
DIP IN TRADITION The red-hued baths in the city of Beppu in Kyoto, Japan, are a cultural draw.

Christine Galle, founder and director of travel marketing agency Heavens Portfolio, echoes this sentiment. When the company was launched in 2005, experiential travel and niche retreats were rare occurrences. Then, travellers preferred pre-planned tour group holidays or striking typical tourist destinations off their checklists. But over the last two years, Heavens Portfolio has seen a 25 per cent year on year increase in experiential offerings by its stable of clients such as The Oetker Collection and Oberoi Hotels. Galle says: “Travel now goes beyond the picture-perfect beach. It is very much linked to learning, discovering, getting close to nature, tribes, culture and truly living the destination, bygetting up close with the locals.”

This jump coincides with the increase in demand for immersive travel experiences over the last two to three years, say luxury concierges and travel agencies. “Affluent travellers have voyaged quite a fair bit around the world especially for work, which means that they have been there, done that and are bored of visiting the same places,” observes Caroline Lam, executive director of Quintessentially Lifestyle Singapore. In recent times, the concierge company brokered a private dinner for one of its members with the Dalai Lama, organised homestays in Cambodia and gave a traveller the opportunity to be a race-car driver for a day in Italy.

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BEYOND THE NORM Exotic destinations like sand-swept Namibia offer a different experience.

Lam adds: “They crave experiences that inspire them and resonate with them on a deeper level. Travel is increasingly seen as a tool that allows them to be more dynamic and informed, and ultimately, one that sets them on a path towards self-discovery.”

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Getting Real Close and Personal

To live as authentically as possible, travellers are eschewing the traditional standards of luxury, such as high thread count Egyptian cotton sheets or 24-hour butler service. Those who can’t give up some of life’s little indulgences are turning to holiday website rentals such as Airbnb, Luxury Retreats and Onefinestay for a homestay. In turn, these sites are reporting a boom in rentals for luxury residences, castles and even islands owned by locals who might just throw in a personalised tour of their property.

RUGGED TOURS Adventure down the Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia in a 4×4 wheel drive.

Many others are not afraid of getting their hands dirty or enduring some physical activity. Jose Cortes, co-founder of travel agency A2A, which specialises in bespoke trips to Africa, Latin America and Antarctica, says about half his clients enquire about participatory travel adventures that go beyond 4×4 game drives and ultra-luxe lodges. These include going on walking safaris or fly camping and even participating in research and anti-poaching programmes in the bush, such as rhinoceros translocation activities and elephant darting, where they get to take DNA samples and record the vital signs of these animals. Animal-loving clients have even signed up to work hand in hand with gauchos as the Argentinean cowboys tend to their cattle or sheep.

Cortes says: “I can see our clients are becoming more keen on collecting experiences than material things. Their definition of luxury is changing to that of sleeping under the stars and engaging in conversations with locals who have totally different backgrounds from them.”

To bridge cultural and language gaps, agencies such as Walk Japan take extra effort to support family-run and local businesses and hire local guides, many of whom live in these rural communities. Walk Japan offers unique walking tours through historic trails and traditional villages in the Japanese countryside. One of its most popular routes is the Nakasendo Way, an ancient highway that used to be traversed by feudal lords, pilgrims and merchants. It passes through scenic routes, rural hamlets and farming communities.

Novelist Amy Wong, who embarked on this voyage to experience the traditional side of Japan, says she was touched by the locals’ kindness and generosity. She recalls: “From the little old lady who came out of her house to wish us well just outside Hikone, sending us off with little folded paper cranes; to the man sitting in his doorway in Ena, who invited us in for tea; and the grandfather tending to his garden in Nojiri, who gave us a lesson in growing strawberries, all were gracious and friendly. Many were happy that we were walking a route that was steeped in so much of their history, and wistful that they weren’t able to do it themselves.”

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