Sustainability & Slow Travel: a good match?
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
Is slow travel the way forward in terms of sustainable tourism?
The increased focus that sustainability has been receiving recently with regards to travel and in general in all aspects of our life, is definitely a great news: talking about it will at least generate awareness and hopefully deliver some positive change too. There is still a lot to be done in terms of achieving a more sustainable life style and it is going to be extremely challenging, mainly because it will require changing behaviours that are somehow ingrained in our habits.
Sustainable travel is widely associated with the environment (almost as a synonym of green tourism or ecotourism) but, in actual facts, while this aspect plays a really important role, the socio-cultural and the economical impact of traveling are also to be taken into account when we are talking about sustainable tourism. When it comes to travel, sustainability should be defined according to the impact on three different elements:
Traveling in a sustainable way is about minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive impact on these three elements.
Slow travel is definitely in a good position to be considered more sustainable than other forms of tourism and I believe that choosing this way of traveling already shows some sort of awareness of these three elements. Let's have a look at them in more detail.
Moving under your own steam has of course a very low level of carbon emissions so we are definitely off to a good start but there are some other very important issues to be addressed. The elephant in the room here is how do you reach the destination where you will go on your expedition?
About 75% of tourism emissions are related to "traveling to / from" your destination so it is definitely a point worth questioning. I will leave the debate about flying / stop flying for another time and for now I'm just going to say that luckily, if you are passionate about outdoors and exploration, no matter where you live, you have some amazing places to discover which will not require flying to the other side of the world.
Another important element to consider will be where are you going to stay when traveling.
While a majority of those going on slow adventures prefer basic accommodations and campsites, there are also those that want to travel more in style (there is nothing wrong with having some comforts). If campsites by definition have a very low impact, to those staying in hotels or resorts, I would instead recommend choosing accommodations with certified standards of sustainability (look for logos like Travelife, Green Keys, etc.)
Taking care of the environment is not just about reducing and limiting your carbon emissions: it is also a matter of looking after it and not damaging it with your activities. While I have no doubts that no "slow traveler" will intentionally do any harm to nature, in my opinion it is important to embrace a behaviour that will also minimize this risk as well. The best approach is to follow the "leave no trace" principle which, in other words, means leaving everything as you found it so that other people will be able to enjoy that place in the same way you did.
On a slow adventure, you will inevitably spend more time in a destination and, as a result, it will give you more opportunities to support the local economy, spreading your expenses across different locations and businesses. This is definitely positive effect of slow travel, often understated and that takes virtually no effort.
Having said this, a byproduct of tourism is its huge economical leakage or, in other words, the amount of money that remains in the destination compared to total amount of money spent on that trip, is fairly low. A conscious traveler should therefore also think about ways to give something back to the host destination.
Slow travel is not immune to this problem: as an example, it wouldn't be too difficult for me to go on a cycling trip for a week spending hardly anything. While on one side this is good because it makes traveling more accessible and democratic by avoiding creating financial barriers, it doesn't really bring any benefit to the destination where I will be traveling.
On my last couple of trips I have made the conscious decision to stay in local guests houses as opposed to camping mainly for this reason: if I'm adventuring in a destination but spending hardly any money there, then I am simply using its infrastructures and natural resources and not really making any positive contribution to it. It's OK to stay on a strict budget but, if I'm not really spending any money in a destination, then maybe I shouldn't really be there in the first place? Another great way to support the local economy would be buy food locally; it definitely tastes better than any dehydrated meal and it will offer you an insight in the local culture that no pot noodle will be able to match!
This also another field where I think slow adventures get a head start: the pure fact that you are planning a slow travel across a destination means that you have a natural disposition and interest in interacting with the local community, discovering facts that other tourists will completely ignore.
It would be good therefore to do a bit of research in advance to find out more about the culture and traditions of the place you will be visiting and maybe learn a few words. In addition to this, you will simply need to travel with your eyes open and don't be shy or scared about interacting with the locals: more than likely they will be as curious to find out about you, where you come from and what brings you there, as you will be about them. On my cycling trip across Asia, I spent many nights being hosted by locals: being welcomed in their houses was a very interesting experience for me, giving me me the opportunity to see things that I would have never been able to see otherwise but I'm sure that it was equally interesting for my hosts.
In conclusion, I believe the slow travel community is definitely better placed than other tourists when it comes to sustainability but nothing should really be taken for granted; there are always better practices to follow in order to increase the positive impact of your slow travels. Like anything sustainability related, the process always starts with questioning behavior and habits, improve them and keep reviewing them: it is a long, slow path leading to constant improvement and small gains.