7 -min. read

Sónar 2017 – the twenty-fourth edition of the much-treasured electronic music festival – welcomed some 123,000 visitors to Barcelona (for scale, Glastonbury sold 135,000 tickets that summer), with audiences assembling from an astonishing 105 countries. That the festival’s founders have always placed great emphasis on the avant-garde recesses of contemporary music whilst attendance figures continue to soar is testament to forging a philosophy among its fans that elevates creativity and experimentalism – although the allure of the Mediterranean’s temperate climes surely helps.

(In)famed for their propensity to rapidly descend into an ungodly mud Armageddon, British festivals are a rite of passage for millions – but increasingly a monumental turn-off for millions more. Fuelled by the advent of budget air travel, festivals situated in sunnier corners of Europe have flourished, and – from boutique to behemoth – hundreds of new gatherings are founded each year, the travel industry booming off the back of hedonistic nomads frantically ticking off their festival bucket lists.

Sónar Barcelona
Sónar Barcelona

As airlines over the world continue to compete (with tumbling prices making the world a smaller place) and experience-hungry travellers seek new stimulation, the draw of far-flung festivals is heightening, too – surely hastened by Coachella’s tight grip on Instagram appeal. Growing in prominence during the 2000s, the California festival’s ratio of earnest music fans to LA fashionistas reached tipping point during the 2010s, with Coachella-goers’ attire (in spite of its origins of cultural appropriation) transcending mere festival wear on its way to a subculture of its very own.

The impact of Coachella’s fashion followers – in tandem with the rise and rise of social media – has been seismic on the international festival circuit, with brands from the high street to haute couture being unable to ignore ‘festival season’ as kitschy updates on Woodstock style dominate the clothes rails and catwalks between June and August. A movement worth billions of dollars to multiple industries, festival season is impossible to disregard, and as festival travel becomes a multi-million dollar industry of its own, hoteliers, tour operators and transport industries are queuing up to get involved.

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“Music has been a defining characteristic of W Hotels since the brand’s inception”, said Anthony Ingham, Global Brand Leader of W Hotels Worldwide, on the launch of their own ‘festival’ in 2016. “Transforming one of the hottest W Hotels into a weekend-long music festival allows our guests to never miss a beat, from check-in to check-out.” Perhaps a more fashion-forward take on the Ibiza Rocks Hotel – a raucous hotel-cum-club that has hosted names from Florence & The Machine to The Prodigy – W’s foray into the festival world demonstrates the desire for brands to connect with the multiplying global population of festival-goers – from Vegas pool parties with big-name DJs to Berlin’s quirky Michelberger Hotel and its annual micro-festivals; and from luxury to culturally conscious independents, the influence of festival culture can be felt across the industry at large.

Illustrating the demand for differential, the disastrous Fyre Festival – a supposed hyper-luxury event whose fraudulent promoter, having faced 20 years of jail time, is currently in plea negotiations with the US government – showed just how insatiable the appetite for festival experiences can be, with attendees paying upwards of $12,000 for the event that descended into catastrophe. Burned but undeterred, punters are hungry for the VIP treatment, and no festival is now complete without a wide range of packages for those who demand to feel important. Take the likes of Reykjavík’s Secret Solstice, who’re offering experiences for more than £5,400 per person.

Oasis Festival – by SOLOVOV.be / @YOLOVOV

From DJ-laden cruises in the Caribbean to Marrakech’s Oasis Festival (where spa treatments and cocktail bars replace wellies and warm beer), those who are used to the good life have much more inspiration for festival-going in 2018 than paparazzi shots of muddy supermodels at Glastonbury. The question “which festivals are you going to” has replaced “have you ever been to a festival”, as the style-conscious weekend of pleasure-seeking has become as ubiquitous a summer pastime as sunburn and frozen daiquiris.

Papaya Playa Project, Tulum

Such is the ubiquity of the ‘festival experience’, en vogue destinations have assimilated many traits common to those summer jamborees –  particularly Tulum, a getaway that has achieved considerable festival feel. The ancient Mayan port city on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula – defined by its devastating white sands and jungle canopy – has long had a history of New-Age spirituality, but major new hospitality concepts like Papaya Playa Project have harnessed those vibes and injected an effervescent shot of fiesta, with influence from the iconic Burning Man festival clearly evident in the conceiving of their extravagant beach parties.

On that note, Maxa Camp – a cool campsite with tents, RVs, and airstreams – is another player on the Tulum happenings scene, and comes with first-hand experience of Black Rock Desert’s most famous festival, with the brand also hosting a camp at the temporary Black Rock City, and even boasting a Mad Max–esque ‘art car’ that cruises the dusty sands as a kind of post-apocalyptic mobile nightclub. With ‘proper’ festivals like January’s Comunité in addition to the multitude of festival-inspired weekly extravaganzas dotted around the laid-back town, Tulum is case in point of the travel/festival crossover.

Meanwhile, Burning Man – the community-minded event of artistic self-expression and togetherness – was first held on a San Francisco beach in 1986, and has since cemented itself, alongside Michael Eavis’ Worthy Farm shindig as one of the world’s most famous festivals. Both maligned in recent years for their increasing gentrification, Burning Man frequently attracts Silicon Valley’s wealthiest hedonists. Around the world, though – from Spain to China – associated events have brought the festival’s decommodified philosophy to new, enlightened audiences, with South Africa’s AfrikaBurn gearing up for its eleventh edition, and serving as a reminder of the diverse locations welcoming the festival traveller.

Eccentric and exceedingly rich, Australian professional gambler David Walsh made his millions off the back of a cleverly coded system that allowed him to win big on horse and sports betting. That he would put much of his fortune into a vast contemporary art gallery (in his hometown of Hobart, Tasmania) themed around sex and death tells you much about his character. Australia’s largest private museum, the MONA is a labyrinthine of cutting-edge art, and hosts two annual festivals: summer’s MOFO and its twisted twin, the winter solstice Dark Mofo – a dramatic occurrence that The Guardian called “deliciously deranged”. With some 275,000 people involved in its 2016 edition – 8,000 from overseas and $46 million contributed to the state the year prior – Dark Mofo is quite the ray of light for Tasmania’s economy.

Like Burning Man, Walsh’s couplet of festivals are predominantly focused on the arts, which reminds us that culture-keen travellers have their sights set on more than just music.


Beginning as SonarPro – a record and technology fair that accompanied Sónar’s annual Barcelona events – Sónar+D launched in 2013, and saw 5,500 registered professionals from 57 countries attend last year’s session of talks, workshops and exhibitions of new music and arts technologies, installations, performances, networking events and a startup hub, all confirming the offshoot as a major event in its own right.

Inaugurated in 1970, Art Basel became a name beyond the world of art collecting when it launched its Miami Beach edition in 2002 – showing that location means everything. Accompanied by Design Miami/ since 2005, the shows have had a major impact upon the Magic City, and prove today’s travellers have a lust for cultural events that span the spectrum of creativity. The Venice BiennaleLe Voyage à NantesVivid SydneyArt DubaiSculpture by the Sea… From trade shows to citywide installation-based art festivals, it’s worth noting that festivals are attracting hundreds of thousands of international visitors, flower in your hair or not.

Collectif Fichtre, "Canadienne", Terrasse du restaurant Le 1, Nantes - Voyage à Nantes, 2015 © Franck Tomps / LVAN
Collectif Fichtre, “Canadienne”, Terrasse du restaurant Le 1, Nantes – via Voyage à Nantes, 2015 /courtesy of Franck Tomps / LVAN

Like David Walsh’s contrasting festivals, where there is light there is dark. The inescapable issue of air travel’s devastating carbon footprint is a more contentious issue than ever. Should one travel to Miami to do exactly what they may in Basel? Is Tasmania a stretch too far when other festivals can be visited nearby? But the fact remains that travellers will travel, and smaller festivals in lesser-visited locations have the opportunity to provide welcome tourism for their regions – and the appeal of festival differential can often be a starting point for more offbeat excursions. It’s vital that those working in the travel and tourism industries understand the importance of such festivals, and position them as anchors for further exploration.

Sónar’s impact means that, for a week in mid-June, Barcelona is now the epicentre of the international electronic music scene: off-Sónar events are often as explosive as the main events, and the festival and its satellite events adding €72 million euros to Catalonia’s GDP in 2015. Many of the city’s hotels host events of their own during that week, which offers a glimpse into the potential of embracing your city or region’s festival activities, the industry surrounding festivals frequently having as much opportunity to enhance the impact of said festivals as the organisers themselves.

Cutting-edge trade shows, arts fairs, fashion-conscious bouts of hedonism, the festival is many things to many people in 2018 – most importantly, it is big business, and unavoidable. Whether or not your city or region has a festival, it is a phenomenon to be embraced with open arms, because – as famed counterculture hippy Ken Kesey said – “you’re either on the bus, or off the bus.”


James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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