Happiness is a place. Some call it Bhutan.

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Ultimate untourist and founder of Alternative Escapes, Ian OSullivan talks about his transformative travel experience in Bhutan

Ian OSullivan is the Founder & Senior Travel Coach at Alternative Escapes, a travel education and adventure planning company for self-identified ‘untourists’ seeking deeper, more authentic, and more culturally transformative travel experiences. Ian believes the greatest value travel can deliver is when it’s used consciously as a tool for learning, self-development and personal growth. 

Just back from a 30 day government-sponsored scouting assignment across Bhutan, Ian has returned to New York determined to bring the first commercial travelers into the deepest pockets of Bhutan’s still unexplored cultural and natural landscapes – places no other travel company has yet to explore.  As the “least-urbanized” country in the world, and the only independent Buddhist Kingdom, CATALYST brings you the story of what’s really happening inside the mysterious Himalayan mountain land knows as Bhutan.

Tell us about Transformative Travel – what is it and how is it different from other travel?

I define Transformative Travel as purposeful vacationing for people who want to use their journey as a catalyst to learn, develop, and grow.  I see it as the fusion of leisure travel with performance coaching, whereby the travelers use their adventure as an opportunity to define and achieve significant personal and life goals.

It’s a systematic and teachable approach to travel that leads to personal growth, lifestyle change, and profound transformations in the traveler’s view of themselves and their world.  So we don’t really sell vacation packages - we sell life-changing adventures, along with the coaching, training and education to make it happen. 

What personal experiences led you launch Alternative Escapes?

After 7 years as a marketing director in a large Wall Street finance company I decided it was time to change my life and my career. I had just completed my first Ironman triathlon – a life goal I held since I was a child – and with my 40th birthday fast approaching I decided it was time to make the move.  So 48 hours before my birthday I resigned from my job and took a one-way ticket to Stockholm, Sweden in order to celebrate in style - with my father, some friends from around the world, and 12 bottles of Moet!

That party was the beginning of a 2-month tour across Europe where I revisited the most influential travel destinations of my youth – specifically Barcelona, where I worked as an Assistant Interpreter for NBC at the 1992 Olympics.  And then Granada, a city I fell in love with, and found love in, while studying as an Ambassadorial Scholar for Rotary International in 1995. 

Along the way I re-discovered my passion and talent for travel - and in a moment of delirium and the optimistic insight that sometimes happens while travelling – I had this vision to create a new kind of travel company — one that would educate, equip and inspire people to have transformative, life-changing adventures.

It was the moment I finally discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life:  teach people creative ways to accomplish their travel dreams - while helping them make a positive impact on the world.   

How and why did you choose Bhutan as your top 2014 travel destination?

After returning from my 2-month tour of Europe 2014, I founded Alternative Escapes Inc. in New York, and then set out to build a new career for myself in the world of travel.  Shortly thereafter I stumbled upon the April 2014 issue of AFAR magazine lying on my friends coffee table.

The moment I saw the Tiger’s Nest Monastery cover shot I knew I was destined to someday find the exact spot where the picture was taken. Prior to that I had never knew Bhutan existed, so this one picture ended up re-shaping and re-directing my entire life.

Less than 6 months after setting my intention, I was formally invited to explore Bhutan on a government-sponsored scouting trip for an unprecedented 30 days – where I would be given access to locations no other journalists or foreigners have visited before.  

For me, this scouting assignment was a dream come true – and it gave me a chance to really test and prove my capabilities as a world-class traveler, field scout, and adventure planning expert.   

Bhutan is unique as a country where the Gross National Happiness is valued by the government and people as much as economic prosperity. Can you tell us about this, and how this affects the people that you meet there and the experience?

Gross National Happiness is a concept conceived by Bhutan’s 4th King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk,  which proposes that a nation’s health, progress and prosperity can not be fully measured by it’s economic output alone.  So the King, with his team of Buddhist scholars and advisors, developed a pioneering method to assess their Kingdom's holistic progress and wellbeing. The concept came to be known as the Gross National Happiness Index – which calculates other quality-of-life indicators such as: 1- Preservation of cultural heritage, 2- Conservation of the environment and 3- Good governance without corruption or abuse.

Bhutan still cares about it’s economic output, or GDP as we would call it – but that represents only one of the “four pillars” that comprise Gross Happiness.  Furthermore, Bhutan specifies that all economic gains must only be achieved through “Sustainable & Equitable Socio-Economic Development.” Gross Happiness is truly a revolutionary concept in the world of economics and geo-politics, and my understanding is that other countries and the United Nations have begun adopting the model for measuring national prosperity.

Personally, I think His Majesty the 4th King, and his 35 year old Oxford-educated son, known to the people as Dasho Khesar, who currently rules as Bhutan’s 5th King, are both brilliant thinkers and pioneering visionaries in leadership. They are highly revered and fiercely loved by their people, yet largely unknown to the rest of the world.   

So how does all this effect the travelling experience in Bhutan?  The most common question I got asked by strangers is “How do you feel in Bhutan?”  The answer they are hoping for is “happy.”  They want to make sure you “feel happy” in Bhutan.  Or, as one beautiful girl said with a gentle nod and bow, after hauling my massively over-packed suitcases up 3 flights of stairs on her head… “It is only my pleasure to please you sir.”  As strange as that sounded to my western ears, I knew exactly what she meant – because I just watched her prove it. 

So expect the people of Bhutan to treat you like royalty.  You may find it difficult to carry your own bags, open a car door, or lift anything for yourself while in Bhutan - it seems someone will always be there first offering to do it for you. People will hurry and shuffle about and make a fuss to ensure their ‘honorable foreign guest’ is comfortable. The Bhutanese sense of hospitality is so genuine and respectful and deeply spiritual that it can reshape the way you see yourself by the end of the trip.

Bhutan was the last country in the world to introduce Internet and TV to it’s people back in 1999, so many villagers you meet will know almost nothing about the world beyond their valley.  In the rarely visited Eastern reaches of Bhutan, New York is a place many have not heard of – because it simply doesn’t matter.  In a country with no elevators, not a single traffic light, and most roads are unpaved and yet everyone seems to be healthy and happy - it’s hard to explain why New York should matter.

But what every villager in Bhutan does seem to know is that 1974 His Majesty the King declared that foreign travelers, for the first time, would be invited in to visit their country – and that tourism would be the best way grow the country while preserving Bhutan’s cultural and natural heritage.  So through some abstracted association over the years, the villagers in Bhutan have come to view foreigners as special guests of the King – and so they may treat you as such.  It’s an experience that’s hard to explain and I think impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world.

Did you feel an overwhelming sense of happiness on your journey?

That’s a really smart question, and a hard one to answer. Because it was a professional scouting assignment I was shooting every day, trying to document the journey for my clients, while learning the ins and outs of the experience and all the people needed to make it happen.   So every day was intense and demanding – waking up at 6am for yoga, followed by hours of driving, shooting and meeting new people. It was very exhilarating but also exhausting.  But in the difficult moments I realized this was in fact my ultimate dream trip, because now I was tired, exhausted and uncomfortable as a result of pushing the limits of where anyone has traveled before.  So this realization transformed every mishap and inconvenience along the way into sense of daily happiness.  How could I not be overflowing with happiness to realize I was actually living out my childhood dream to explore ‘the ends of the earth’ in search of fun, beauty and adventure?

But more importantly, Bhutan fundamentally shifted the way I see happiness.  The Bhutanese don’t really express the word “happiness” in their lives the same ways we do.  They tend to be calm, respectful, self-controlled — not at all like the boisterous Italians and Brazilians.  What impressed me the most wasn’t some magical happy dust in Bhutan’s water, but rather the sense of connectedness, inner peace and genuine gratitude that exudes from its people. 

It’s powerful, palpable and nearly impossible to explain – but if you immerse yourself in their world long enough, this Bhutanese “happiness” state mind will begin to seep in and change you.  While people often refer to Bhutan as the Himalayan “land of happiness” – I like to describe it as a culture where the vast majority of people live contently and at peace – with themselves, their neighbors, and the world.  And that’s hard to find anywhere in the world these days.  

How is Alternative Escapes different from the other travel companies out there and why would travelers seek out experiences with you?

Alternative Escapes is the world’s first travel education and adventure planning company that coaches clients in the art and skills of travel. We serve the curious and adventurous traveler seeking a more authentic and less commercial travel experience.  We describe it as “Travel for the Untourist.”

Our ultra-inclusive Untourist Private Adventures are unique in the industry – and very different from any commercial group travel experience.  Starting at $199/day, an Alternative Escapes certified Travel Coach designs and plans our clients a one-of-a-kind, all-inclusive private adventure tailored to their specific interests and abilities.

Our trips typically include full-time personal guide, chauffer, and 24/7 private transportation which allows clients the freedom to travel at their own pace - focusing only on the activities they care most about - and with flexibility to change plans or make up new ones along the way!  It’s a very different experience from travelling with a group of strangers and being forced to follow some tour company’s schedule.  

Your trips seek to welcome “the untourist,” who would be right for your journeys?

Our style of travel is for people who want to venture off the beaten tourist path, explore the unexplored and access deeper levels of culture that remain untouched by other travelers.

We define Untourist is the adventurous, open-minded, curious traveler who is always fascinated to learn and try new things – not necessarily fearless, but willing to try and conquer a new fear along the way.

Although Untourists can be of any age or background, they are driven by a different mindset and motivation for travel than most leisure travelers.

Untourists prefer the cost of adventure over the cost of luxury. They prefer taking ‘the road less traveled’ but don’t always know where to find it.  Untourists want to venture deeper, explore further, and get more up-close-and-personal with the people and nature that makes each place so special. 

But most importantly, the Untourist understands that adventure can never be perfect. It can only be interesting.  And in the game of adventure - that’s what matters most.

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