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A deep dive into the question ‘What is slow travel?’ Exploring it’s creation, purpose and how to adopt some of its practises in your regular travel and living plans.
Since announcing the new focus for this blog recently, the number one question I’ve been asked is ‘So…what is slow travel, exactly?‘ Closely followed by the popular Dad joke ‘So, do ya just walk really slow? HAHAHAHA!!!’
Though the concept of slow travel is gaining popularity as more travellers seek sustainable ways to experience destinations, there is no one-size-fits-all definition of slow travel.
There are, however, some consistent principles grounding the idea of slow travel, and a lot of personal interpretations layered in.
So today, I’ll define what slow travel means to me, the background of the whole ‘slow food & living’ movement, touch on its inherent complexities and share some of the ways you can try out slow travelling on your next trip.
And no, sorry Dad-jokers out there, it’s a little more than just slow-mo walking, Monty Python style, through new cities…but don’t let that hold you back!
Where does ‘slow travel’ come from?
Slow travel may be gaining momentum (geddit? Sorry I’ll see myself out…) these days, but the idea of slow living and slow travelling all comes from the original 1980’s ‘slow food’ movement in Italy.
This concept was created by food and wine journalist Carlo Petrini, as a direct response to the explosion of fast food restaurants in the mid-’80s.
Petrini was horrified to see the way that global brands like McDonalds and Pizza Hut were quickly and effectively eroding the cultural traditions of Italian life – natural farming, meals around the table with the family and an appreciation of simple pleasures.
Processed fast food was not only changing the physical landscape through intensive farming, but it was also eroding a way of life that revolved around producing and eating great food in a relaxed, sociable way.
The slow food movement grew from the original demonstrations against these American brands – and I’ll be honest, I love the idea of Italian Nonna’s making vats of spaghetti out the front of McDonald’s to lure people away from Big Macs.
(If you want to explore the concept of slow food further, you can check their resources here and explore if there are local chapters near you. Keep in mind though, food is also a political topic, so slow food and strict adherence to its tenets also raises a fair few questions about privilege and access to affordable healthy food…but that’s a topic for another day, and people far smarter than I. One to be aware of though, as it also comes into discussions about slow travel.)
What is slow travel?
Slow travel emerged as a natural offshoot from the slow food movement. It’s a reaction to ‘tick the box’ travel and resort holiday packages, roughly in the early 2000’s – you can see an original ‘Manifesto for Slow Travel’ was defined in 2005 to capture this shift.
In it, author Nicky Gardner defines slow travel;
‘New priorities are emerging: low impact tourism, engaging with people, giving something back to the communities we visit, and being aware of our carbon footprints.
Slow travel is not about money or privilege. Slow travel is a state of mind. It is about having the courage not to go the way of the crowd.
Not too long after that, AirBnB was founded in 2008, tapping into the zeitgeist idea of travelling ‘like a local’ and getting to know the people you stayed with through staying in their places, away from chain hotels.
In its early days, AirBnB was seen as a positive alternative and opportunity to travel and ‘live like a local.’ Their iconic ad campaign ‘Don’t go there, live there’ capitalised on the idea of behaving not like a tourist, but a resident of the city you were visiting.
It’s a beautiful idea, but, like a lot of grand concepts, the utopia didn’t quite arrive….instead the rise and rise of AirBnB has meant that ‘living like a local’ is driving up the actual locals cost of living and renting in cities across the world.
Nowdays, the increasing pace & affordability of travel means millions more people are travelling per year than ever before, in combination with the rise of FOMO and Instagram inspired travel. We are now facing continued issues with overtourism as a consequence of AirBnB’s industry dominance & rapid growth, among other factors.
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The economic, cultural and environmental impact of this shift and explosion in tourist numbers has had primarily negative impacts on local communities.
So because of all these negatives, slow travel is seeing a resurgence as a direct reaction and potential solution to overhyped, overpopulated tourist activity.
Gardner’s original guidelines for slow travel are as follows;
- Start at home. The key to slow travel is a state of mind. That can be developed at home.
- Travel slow. Avoid planes if at all possible, and instead enjoy ferries, local buses and slow trains. Speed destroys the connection with landscape. Slow travel restores it.
- You may eagerly look forward to the arrival at your chosen destination, but don’t let that anticipation eclipse the pleasure of the journey.
- Check out local markets and shops.
- Savour café culture. Sitting in a café, you become part of the cityscape and not merely a passing observer.
- Take time to get a feel for the languages and dialects of the areas you visit. Learn a few phrases, use a dictionary and buy a local newspaper.
- Engage with communities at the right level. Choose accommodation and eating options that are appropriate to the area where you are travelling.
- Do what the locals do, not only what the guidebooks say.
- Savour the unexpected. Delayed trains or missed bus connections create new opportunities.
- Think what you can give back to the communities you visit.
Slow travel has developed amongst a growing wave of appreciation for ecotourism and responsible travel philosophies, taking many of its ideas from the slow living movement, as outlined by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom in this deep dive article.
But the concept of slow travel is not yet widely embraced – despite the evident need for a balance to the growing demands that overtourism places on popular destinations like Barcelona, Lisbon and Iceland.
So with that all said, in reality, slow travel is still very much an idea and practise that comes down to the interpretation of each individual traveller.
My path to embracing slow travel.
As someone who has travelled extensively to 45+ countries worldwide and worked inside the travel industry for 10+ years (dear God, has it been that long?!) I’m in no way going to get up on my high horse now and say that travelling any other way is wrong, and bad and makes you an awful person.
My own progress to embracing slow travel has been a long one.
Australians are, by the pure fact of Geography, hard-wired to squeeze in as many sights, countries and as much activity as possible, as quickly as possible when visiting say, Europe.
The first time we visited Europe as a family, we saw Edinburgh, Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice in just under two weeks or so. It was insanity to race so quickly, but the trip blew my mind, and as a family of five, was the best opportunity we had to experience these incredible destinations together. My mum planned the itinerary painstakingly and we were saving for years to make it happen.
Often with just two weeks annual leave and a limited budget (depending on the exchange rate of the day) speeding around 8+ countries in two weeks is the best way to get ‘bang for your buck’ when travelling. I get that.
Hell, I worked as a tour guide for companies that sell exactly that kind of travel to 18-35 year olds, and currently work for a website that sells many tours to help you maximise your time and budget.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of travel!
If its a matter of taking that tour and travelling quickly or not travelling at all then take the quick trip if it works for you!
However, after years of racing around to check sights off a never ending list, and since moving to Europe (maybe the ultimate act of slow travel and cultural privilege) I’ve been learning to embrace slower journeys.
Learning to savour time in a small city like Mechelen, or returning to a destination to explore the local lifestyle.
Even enjoying the unique places within my adopted hometown of Vienna, and discovering its cultural and foodie history has been a delight.
After many years of chasing the ‘more more more’ style of travel, racing through places with barely time to learn a word of local language, now I’m seeking slower ways to savour a destination, allowing space and time to explore freely, not be chasing the next ‘Top 10’ activity.
Its definitely a learning process, and something I’m sure I will screw up along the way. But just being mindful in my choices when travelling, and aware of the impact of my decisions, is already a shift to help better support local communities, the environment and take some responsibility for my impact on the world when travelling.
What slow travel means.
So, though it is wide open for interpretation from each individual, for me, slow travel will mean the following;
- Choosing to take the train, bike or bus when possible, over speedier planes and cars, to enjoy the journey while reducing my carbon footprint
- Choosing accommodation, restaurants and activities that will benefit local communities, observing cultural heritage and preserving the environment
- Exploring local markets, cafes and districts, to get a feel of a place, not just the ‘highlights’ of a location (the fact that this justifies my brunch and coffee habit..well, that’s just a bonus, isn’t it?)
- Taking the time & effort to connect with the local people, culture and language through shared meals, friendly discussions and open-minded cultural exchanges. Even if its just chatting with the taxi driver or barmen to better understand a destination
- Savouring time in one specific destination to truly experience it, instead of racing from one highlight to another. Slow mornings, walks around town and generous, flexible itinerary planning (a tough challenge for me to avoid planning every last minute of a trip!)
- Where possible, spending longer stretches of time in a single destination instead of squeezing in multiple locations
- Taking the time to explore and uncover my hometown, bringing the slow travel philosophies into everyday living to better appreciate my surroundings. This should foster a ‘slow travel’ state of mind in the everyday.
These are likely to adapt and change as I continue exploring the opportunities within slow travel, but for now, these are the guiding principles from which I want to try and make better decisions and travel plans that positively impact the destinations I visit.
How you can start embracing slow travel ideas.
Embracing slow travel & living doesn’t have to be a massive change, or sudden shift to a completely different way of doing things. Don’t do anything so extreme immediately that you will resent or regret it later!
If you approach things with an attitude of trying small gradual changes, then you will slowly find yourself questioning more often, being more mindful of your choices and discovering the joy of slow travel.
Here are a few small, easy changes you can make on the pathway to embracing slow travel.
- Ask yourself when planning a trip – is there an alternative, lower impact way to arrive at your destination? Local ferries, overnight trains, cheap regional buses like Flixbus? Even car sharing to reduce the number of cars on the road will help!
- When choosing where to stay, explore beyond the standard hotels or mega-brands to find a registered Bed & Breakfast or small hotel or hostel, that pays taxes and is bound by local laws. Often you can find great places on Booking.com or Tourism Board websites, then book directly with the accommodation to ensure you’re supporting their business.
- If you’re planning a trip, assess if you need to go to 5 destinations in one hit, or simply stay put in one for a longer period of time to enjoy it.
- At home, take the time to explore and enjoy your surroundings, from sitting in a cafe observing the life around you, or savouring the unique or different experiences you can uncover in your own backyard.
- Do your research. Find out before travelling whether the destination you are heading to has any challenges with overtourism, and make informed decisions about how you can visit with minimal harm to the local culture & environment.
- Enjoy it! Slow travel is actually a wonderful excuse to..well take things slowly, take the pressure off from seeing every ‘must do!’ thing, and allow yourself to explore and discover on your own terms. So you can put the phone down, and actually enjoy taking your time in a new location.
These are just some ideas and suggestions, but I’d love to hear from you guys what your efforts towards slow travel look like, and how you would like to embrace it moving forward.
Hit me up in the comments or on Facebook to share your ideas around Slow Travel, and as always, I love to answer any questions you have about slow travel & living in Vienna.
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