Two tents on rolling mountains during sunset.
The further you get from the well-worn tourist trail, the deeper you will be able to delve into the local culture.
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto.com / skiserge1

Go Your Own Way: Why You Should Travel off the Beaten Track

Creating Your Own Journey

There is no difference between a traveler and a tourist. If you are traveling, whether for a week, a month or a year, you are a tourist.

But, being a tourist doesn’t have to mean buying into mass tourism and sticking only to well-defined, ‘touristy’ areas.

It is entirely possible to escape so-called tourist traps and get off the path trodden by thousands of other visitors. Often, the corners of the world that have never featured in any top 10 lists and are frequently bypassed, ignored and forgotten about completely are the best places to find richer, more authentic experiences, explore more meaningful travel, and take advantage of experiential education.

So what are the benefits to traveling off the beaten track?

What Happens When You Step off the Path?

For starters, you are much more likely to get to know the local people. In general, the fewer tourists locals see, the friendlier they are likely to be.

A handful of foreigners is a novelty; a bus load is just income. Away from tourist meccas, you are more likely to be greeted with smiles, invited into strangers’ homes for meals, and offered the local tipple.

Why does this make a difference? Because traveling is, after all, about learning, and the best way to learn about a country is to get to know the people who live there.

You can travel for weeks, speaking only to the people seated behind reception desks, supermarket checkouts and steering wheels. You don’t even need to worry about learning the local language — English is everywhere.

But stay in this comfortable tourist bubble and you will never get to see how people can sway your impression of an entire country. You will never discover how warm, hospitable and non-threatening most people are.

You will never see the superficial differences of skin color and clothes and country of origin stripped away, revealing we are all the same underneath.

By bringing people from diverse cultures together, tourism can foster understanding between strangers, remove prejudices and develop tolerance. However none of this possible if there is no cultural exchange in the first place.

Experience the Culture

The further you get from the well-worn tourist trail, the deeper you will be able to delve into the local culture.

The more you distance yourself from the beaten track, the more genuine your experiences will be. In places that receive high numbers of tourists, aspects of the local culture are frequently capitalized on and commercialized.

Religious traditions, local customs, celebrations and festivals are often reduced to conform to tourist interests and to make them more palatable to a wider audience. Arts and crafts are turned into souvenirs and adapted to suit more popular tastes, often eroding their cultural significance.

In areas where tourism is less developed, you might be lucky enough to witness some of these traditions and crafts as they naturally exist, rather than just on the end of a key chain.

Similarly, many of the larger and more international cities of the world are becoming more homogeneous by the year. The same clothing stores and fast food restaurants pop up everywhere, creating a sense of familiarity and obscuring many of the things that make a place unique and different.

Straying away from this standardization you will have the chance to actually discover something new and exciting.

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Affordable Travel

If you aren’t concerned with broadening your horizons and extending the limits of your knowledge, there are many other reasons take a more original route. Consider, for example, that travel off the beaten track tends to be the cheapest.

‘Undiscovered’ or ‘hidden gem’ destinations tend to become popular in part because they are affordable. The tourist trail is usually beaten down by the backpackers first, who eventually bring the rest of the world.

Before Game of Thrones fever took over Dubrovnik and Yacht Week party-goers took over Hvar, Croatia was one such destination. Now Dubrovnik rivals western Europe for prices and the backpackers are blazing a trail into budget-friendly Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Kiss the Crowds Goodbye

On an even less profound level, you’ll probably appreciate leaving the crowds behind. Weaving through the streets of Venice, it is hard to appreciate the glory of this fascinating city when there are throngs of people heaving all around you, selfie sticks being waved in your face and you are featuring in more family photos than you are really comfortable with.

However, in Ljubljana, just hours away, you will only have to share the city with friendly Slovenians.

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

You are far more likely to be pushed to learn a few words of the local language. Even little things as simple as ‘please,’ ‘bus station’ and ‘eat.’

Your photos will improve when they are not populated by strangers. And you get to feel much more like an intrepid explorer.

Traveling pushes you to step outside your comfort zone and into the unknown. Push further and keep pushing.

Dare yourself to taste new foods, challenge yourself to try new sports, urge yourself to go places you never thought you would go. The best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it, so lower your inhibitions and strike up conversations with the locals.

You will be pushed further and further out of your comfort zone the further you get from the beaten track. And the further from your comfort zone you get, the more magical, radically different and memorable your experiences will become.

No one remembers ordering McDonald’s in Paris, but you will remember ordering cevapi in Sarajevo.

Getting off the beaten path doesn’t mean your trip will be any more dangerous or difficult but it might test you, challenge you and ultimately change you. Next time you travel, turn your back on the crowds and choose adventure.

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