In the new from The Independent travel trends column, Trendwatch, we dig into types of travel, modes of transport and the top buzzwords to watch.
When I heard about the “mystery travel” trend, my first thought was: surely this is the opposite of a to-do list?
Far from methodically ticking off the places they dream of going – the traditional way many of us have always chosen our holidays – some travelers are now throwing caution to the wind and paying to go, well, anywhere.
This quirky travel trend sees people sign up for a vacation, usually specifying how long, what activity, what price or how remote they want – but then leaves the tour operator in complete control of everything else, from the destination the number of stops and daily activities.
Last week, Norwegian specialist Up Norway announced that it was now selling mystery trips to the country. Although – surprise! – all trips are in Norway, and customers choose the length of their stay, they only discover the regions, hotels and sites they will see upon arrival.
It’s riding a wave that peaked four years ago as bespoke tour operators looked for ways to woo customers with unique ‘surprise and delight’ tactics.
Wix squared launched mysterious location travel packages in 2018, while Make My Day launched mystery city tours in 2019.
During the pandemic, when international travel was often banned, Qantas launched mystery flights to Australian destinations. Since then, start-ups such as the honeymoon specialist Blind experiments“travel brokers” Daytime, and based in the United States Pack and go unveiled similar concepts.
Sprs.me – which offers mystery city breaks from six UK airports and one Irish airport – has seen demand rise steadily, with surprise spend up 14% in March 2022 compared to March 2019.
However, it turns out that Up Norway’s interest in mystery touring is more rooted in their home country than you might think.
“In Norway, we have had a concept for a long time called blatur, meaning “in the blue”. It’s often a trip organized by a friend or family member, and most people who go there don’t know where they’re going or what they’re going to do,” says founder Torunn Tronsvang.
Companies regularly send their employees on a blatur a getaway to bond, none of them having a clue where they’re going.
With this tradition in mind, before launching completely surprising itineraries, Up Norway had embarked on shorter mystery days and excursions as part of its travels, such as food outings.
Then the last two years came. In the wake of Covid, Tronsvang says, she noticed a new wave of customers raising their hands and saying, “Surprise me.”
“People are tired of planning and failing, and planning again,” she suggests. “The role of the travel agent seems to be becoming fashionable again. People want someone they trust to give them the best recommendations, the best advice. Now more than ever, they are ready to cede power.
The founder of surprise trip pioneer Wix Squared, Alex Wix, agrees. Far from being off-putting, the “anywhere” factor is suddenly a real plus.
“People just want to go somewhere – they are tired of not being able to fly,” she says. “Before, people said, ‘I want to go here on vacation’ – now people are increasingly saying, ‘Where can I go, is it easy? “”
Prior to launching her company’s mystery tours in exotic locales such as Morocco and Sri Lanka, she had experience as a destination expert at several travel agencies.
“I’ve always liked to add a bit of surprise to the itineraries. If a guest likes birdwatching, we could put a small pair of binoculars in the room or organize a birdwatching trip. So why not go further? she says.
She’s perfected the art of getting someone’s likes before booking their tour itinerary.
“I had clients who didn’t want to know where they were going at all. I would do sort of quick questions – coffee or tea, cats or dogs? – to get an idea of what they would like.
In the most extreme cases, the vacationer only learns at the airport where his plane is heading. The surprise factor can be amplified or reduced as much as the customer wishes.
“In some cases, it’s day by day – or really hour by hour,” says Alex. “Outside your hotel room you might find a picnic basket that says ‘Take this with you’ and then be met by a driver to take them somewhere, not knowing where you are going later in the afternoon.”
Of course, she says, people can request as much downtime as they want — there’s nothing stopping mystery travelers from spending a day by the pool here and there.
There is also an element of increased excitement in a mystery trip. The start-up Blind Experiences, founded by Chiara Mascarucci, Andrea Lazzarini Viti and Fabio Prestijacopo, speaks of an “excitement curve” before their travels.
Their theory is that around a quarter of the holiday, we start thinking about the prospect of coming home and the excitement curve starts to drop. But if there are still surprises to discover during the trip, the curve continues to rise.
Partially influenced by a psychology book titled Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Design the unexpected by Tania Luna, the company keeps the curve up by offering travelers a series of envelopes to open on specific dates, well in advance of travel.
“There has always been a degree of mystery in travel, no matter how well planned a trip is – often it’s the unknown that adds to the excitement of it all,” says Anneke Nijenhuis, who owns the excellent title of surprise chef at Srprs.me.
“For some it’s not just the evening restaurant they want to leave to chance – total mystery is needed to really shake up the everyday and explore a new destination – and for others small doses of spontaneity are preferable.”
For mystery trips to work, Tronsvang and Wix say the right location is key.
Norway is suitable for a mystery tour, says Tronsvang, because it is perceived as incredibly safe, but also innately mysterious. About the World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness IndexNorway usually ranks quite low – in 2019 it was at number 20, below New Zealand and South Korea and well below better-known nations like Spain and France.
Meanwhile, Wix says Morocco and Sri Lanka are suitable for the purpose as they require few domestic flights – an aspect of a much trickier and heavier tour to line up as a surprise. In these countries, you can ask a driver to show up to transport your customers to their next mystery stop.
It’s essential, she adds, that you have the right people on the ground – be they tour guides, drivers or hotel staff – to help you move the mystery journey forward and drop off every information at the right time.
At the mega-luxury end of things, tour operator Black Tomato is also getting into the mystery travel game – with a bit of a twist. Its extreme “Get lost” The concept gives hardcore intrepid types the chance to test their mettle by getting dropped off at a mysterious location overseas.
They leave without knowing where they are going and find themselves stranded in a distant landscape with only a guide, a compass and the essentials to help them find their way.
Inspired by the adage ‘Sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself’, trips cost up to £10,000 or even £15,000.
It’s more of a mental challenge than anything else: the operator says Get Lost can “help people disconnect, engage in the moment, and push themselves to achieve a truly rewarding sense of satisfaction.”
All in all, this move feels like a pretty natural progression for a crowd of time-poor, money-rich travelers who want to trust an expert with the most knowledge – while shaking up our concept of a vacation after months of travel. burnout or barriers to international travel.
As Alex Wix says, “You come to a tour operator to take some of the pressure off of planning your trip – so why not have them take all that?”