I am in Montreal right now, my last visit before my trip to Thailand and Burma, and it got me thinking. My travelling ways have been changing.

Until not so long ago, I would visit a town or destination for only a few days, seeing all the “must-sees” and doing the “must-dos” and then move on to the next place. I remember thinking that it was a little unfortunate that I was leaving a place just as I was finally able to find my way around, having discovered a few good restaurants and coffee shops, and perhaps met some people. And I had to restart all over again in a new place every three or four days. After a few months of this, a traveller burns out. But then, most of my trips weren’t more than three or four weeks long.

About four years ago I started slowing down, spending a week in the same place, still checking out the top sights and recommended restaurants from the guidebook, but moving more slowly, resting more, and leaving more time for my own discoveries. I might even stop for a couple of weeks to take a class, allowing myself plenty of time to sit in cafes doing homework and people watching.

Sightseeing vs Experiencing

Now that I find myself returning to places for the second time, and with more time on my hands overall, I’m starting to see things differently. Instead of paying $30 to see a major sight I have seen before (albeit 15 or 20 years ago) why not try to “experience” the place more. Instead of rushing around temples and museums in Bangkok, filling my brain with dates and historical facts (most of which I will soon forget), why not just live there, try the street food, talk to people, learn some Thai words, sit in parks and relax while people watching? These are the thoughts I was having yesterday while trying to make a list of “things to see” in Bangkok. I was there in 1995, but it has changed quite a bit since, and there is still plenty to see and do.

With a month or more in the same place, I could probably volunteer, teach English, or get myself more involved in the community. I haven’t done those things yet, but it could be in my future. I believe this way of getting involved into local life instead of just looking at things is what the travel industry calls experiential travel, as opposed to tourism.

At the same time, the exact opposite has been happening with Montreal, my birth town. In the last 30 years I’ve been coming back here on a regular basis to visit friends and relatives, spending most of my time in the suburbs. But recently, I started exploring the city again as a tourist. I feel like I have seen more over my recent visits than I did during the whole three years I lived in Montreal as a student in the early 80’s.

As I started staying overnight in the city proper, carrying a map, and researching online, I discovered many different aspects of Montreal. All of a sudden my old home town was a tourist destination! Mind you it’s been a tourist destination all along; I just never saw it that way before. I bought transit day passes and started exploring markets, museums, galleries, and parks. I re-connected with old friends in the city, made new ones, and let them take me to their favourite restaurants. I took pictures. Yup, I became a tourist…with local connections!

Is one way better than the other? Is experiential travel more valuable? Is tourism more worthwhile? I don’t really think so. Whichever way you approach a destination, the important thing is to enjoy yourself, and hopefully take something away, whether new friendships, or new knowledge. Preferably both. Travel costs money (although not as much as most people imagine) but it also makes you richer.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there!

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