Let's Slow Things Down

21 December 2022

With a growing awareness of the impact our travel habits can have on the environment, we examine the new trend of slow tourism and how it could offer a way to balance our planet's health with people's desire to explore it...

“Hygge is humble and slow. It is choosing rustic over new, simple over posh and ambience over excitement. In many ways, hygge might be the Danish cousin to slow and simple living.”

Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living


You may remember the hype of hygge which came to prominence in 2017 and introduced the Danish concept of comfort and coziness to a world audience.

Celebrating a slower pace of living with prominent visual motifs of crackling log fires and nourishing mugs of something warm, the movement tapped into a widely felt need for a more simplified lifestyle.

The concepts behind hygge can also be seen in the emerging travel and tourism trend of slow travel. But what exactly do we mean by ‘slow travel’? Well, before we delve into the topic more deeply, the following video may help as a useful introduction:

Although not specifically referencing slow travel, the three goals stated at the start of the film act as a useful reference point to discuss the topic.

Reducing Environmental Impact

Slow travel is certainly connected with the environmental impact of the tourism industry.

As the below graph shows, CO2 emissions from aviation have quadrupled since the 1960s and now account for almost 3% of total global emissions.

Given that flying is still a relatively exclusive means of transport (approximately 80% of the world’s population have never been on a plane) this indicates a significant impact created by a small minority.

Slow travel aims to reduce this impact by changing people’s mentalities when it comes to tourism.

In a very literal sense, slow travel can be taken to mean slow(er) travel. Instead of choosing what might be the most convenient (and often cheaper) flight option, the slow travel perspective encourages people to explore greener alternatives such as trains and coaches.

By encouraging a mindset that sees the physical journey as part of the wider travel experience, the emphasis is not on getting to your final destinations as quickly as possible, but rather exploring more interesting and alternative transport routes.

Alongside not rushing to get there, the slow travel approach also advocates staying in a single place for a longer period.

This seems to be a reaction against the cheap, city-break weekend, traditionally popular with younger people travelling on a budget.

By travelling less but staying in place for longer, the environmental impact is reduced and the social and cultural engagement is (theoretically) heightened…

Supporting Local Economies

The importance of tourism’s economic impact for many locations is well documented and its absence during the Covid pandemic had painful consequences for many businesses in popular destinations.

The below graph, compiled by the World Travel and Tourism Council, shows that, in 2019 (the most recent year where data was largely unaffected by the impact of Covid) travel and tourism contributed around 10% of the world’s GDP.

One fear is that the slow tourism trend would negatively impact upon this contribution and reduce the amount of investment in local economies.

However, advocates of the approach would frame it differently.

By slowing the whole process of travel down, they claim, visitors have greater time at a destination to make more meaningful investments.

In fact, they would argue, the slow tourism mentality has a greater benefit for smaller, local businesses, as the visitor has more time to get to know the area and the people who work within it and are not just taken in by the “tourist trap” businesses (often larger, international companies with much greater advertising budgets).

Given the relatively recent emergence of this trend, concrete data to support either side of the economic argument is hard to find; however, it will be interesting to observe over the coming years both how much the slow tourism model is adopted and, in turn, what the implications are for local industries catering for the travel market.

This idea of greater engagement with the local community is something we will explore further in the next section, with a focus more on social and cultural engagement rather than just purely economic…

Positive Social Impact

The slow travel philosophy seeks to rework the traditional transactional nature of tourism.

Many people’s current travel habits could be described as taking the maximum resources out of a place for the minimum cost with little thought to the long-term effects on the area. Once one destination becomes too over-crowded, dirty or (and here’s the irony) “touristy”, time to move on to the next.

This is not to put the blame solely at the feet of the tourist, many travel and tourism companies promote this model to maximise their own profits.

The new mindset is for a more meaningful understanding of the place you visit. In simple terms, the longer you stay somewhere, the better you will get to know the area and its people.

However, slow travel takes this one step further in advocating more active engagement with the travel destination.

In this view, it becomes the responsibility of the visitor to take the time to understand the cultural, social and economic situation of the area and, where possible, make a positive impact during their time there.

This impact can come in a variety of different forms, from choosing the local café each morning for the first coffee of the day, to volunteer work supporting local projects or charities.

The long-term vision here reworks the relationship between the tourist and the tourism destination.

If you were to ask a local Prague resident what their opinion was of the tourists who flood Wenceslas Square each weekend, drink too much beer and then leave on the Sunday afternoon flight, their reaction would likely not be positive.

However, a visitor that works together with a local community for the benefit of the area would be viewed very differently.

Take your time

Slow travel asks us to take a step back and re-evaluate our role as a “tourist”.

It puts emphasis on the traveller as an active agent who has a real and meaningful impact on the place they visit – whether this impact is positive or negative is something we can influence and ultimately decided.

Don’t just do the four or five things that Google or TripAdvisor recommend - do research in advance to already better understand your destination and then spend longer in place to develop this knowledge. In this way, the visitor can make more socially responsible decisions.

As with all evolution, travel habits won’t change overnight; however, by asking us to consider the impact of our tourism impact, slow travel aims to start us on the path to more socially and environmentally responsible choices.

It seems a good destination to aim for – let’s see how quickly we can get there…


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