Periodically, travel might mean a couple of plane rides to a destination for as little as a weekend. For many Canadians, travel might refer to a week-long trip once a year to a warm resort-like destination in the winter in a location such as Mexico, Costa Rica, or one of the various Caribbean islands.
But slow travel refers to traveling with an emphasis on creating meaningful connections to places or people, while also working towards lowering your carbon footprint.
While those who have the means to take these trips are very fortunate, slow travel is an alternative option that offers travelers a more meaningful experience. For example, rather than staying at an isolated chain-resort, slow travel sees you stay at a location that is integrated into the culture of the country being visited. Or better yet, choosing to explore a new location nearby your home to avoid the cost and carbon emissions of a plane.
An article by Condé Nast Traveller explains slow travel as being a long-lasting trend, and that many tourism companies have been transitioning to longer-lasting excursions or stays. They explain that rather than rushing to see every tourist site, you can cultivate a more enjoyable experience by taking the time to fully immerse yourself in your curiosities.
In another article by the Financial Times, they describe travel as a cultural narrative — a place that is experienced through the stories of the people who have lived and currently do live there, as narrated through its architecture, festivals, and other unique experiences. They explain a meaningful experience can come from any place and is dependent on who you share these experiences with.
“Slow travel is about being attentive to your local environment, to problematize aspects of it, to unearth hidden stories about it, to research it, and to let that research inform deeper understandings and different ways of doing things,” says L. Anders Sandberg, a professor in the faculty of environmental and urban change.
“It encourages an appreciation of your immediate surroundings. The locals are also easier to engage with because you are there for a sustained period rather than only visiting for a limited time,” adds Sandberg.
Georgia Broderick, an Australian who moved to Canada four years ago, embraces vanlife with her fiancé and spends her summers climbing and winters skiing. Broderick explains that she only slow travels, and that it has allowed her to lower her carbon footprint and immerse herself into the places she visits.
“You get to know the locals and their favourite places to eat, drink, and play. Plus, if you slow travel, you are less likely to be an ignorant tourist because you really get to know everyone,” says Broderick.
“When I was in Japan, I got to know the man who owned the apartment I was staying in really well because I would say hi to him every day — each day I would learn a new phrase in Japanese to add to our conversations,” Broderick adds as she recounts an enjoyable memory from her slow travel experiences.
Ranu Basu, an associate professor in the faculty of environment and urban change, explains that slow travel incorporates an ethos of visiting a place with a grounded sense of humility, respect, and openness to learn about the place that is hosting you.
“Slow travel encourages us to visit a place with a mindfulness of its history and structural impediments, particularly when traveling to places in the global south that have experienced histories of colonialism and imperialism,” says Basu.
“It encourages us to not be guided by corporate media and representations of places that may not necessarily be honest or politically aligned. We can understand slowness of travel not just as ‘time’ but as a ‘philosophy of engagement’ that is not extractive in nature in all senses — environmentally or socially.
“Slowness in travel involves a lot of listening and building friendships and solidarity networks, being cognizant of alternative cultural norms that are not Eurocentric,” adds Basu.
Jose Etcheverry, an associate professor in the faculty of environmental and urban change, focuses on achieving a carbon-free university and is a nature lover who advocates for getting out in nature to improve health. “Conventional tourism usually erodes local ecosystems and local people. Slow travel improves the local community and helps restore local ecosystems.
“Slow travel is part of an approach that allows us to enjoy nature and local culture in a symbiotic way where we all benefit and create tangible local benefits,” adds Etcheverry.
While traveling slowly offers an abundance of opportunities for travelers to seek out deep connections with locals, new locations or traditions, it simultaneously provides a way for travelers to explore the globe without significantly adding to our carbon footprint.
“The biggest environmental impact of travel is greenhouse gasses. Moving slowly, you use less greenhouse gasses. Also, staying in one spot you might have weeks where you aren’t driving at all because you can walk wherever you want to go,” explains Broderick.
“Van-lifers have the option to use solar panels for energy, composting toilets, and naturally will use a lot less water. Plus, there are other things like buying local and in season, buying from bulk food stores, and lowering your intake of animal products. All of these things make a difference.”
Tourism also impacts various animal species globally. Sustainable Travel International explains that tourism can contribute economically to animal conservation, provide travelers with environmental awareness, and provide employment to those who might otherwise turn to illegal trade of wild animals.
While animal tourism is traditionally viewed as immoral, visiting wildlife conservations can actually be quite ethical. Wildlife conservations are essential to ensuring that various species don’t go extinct. By supporting these organizations, you can simultaneously contribute to improving the ecosystem of the location you visit, as explained in an article by World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
While this may be, travelers should keep in mind that visiting various animal environments can disrupt their natural rhythm. It’s important to be mindful of any regulations set by the conservation and to be extra cautious about leaving trash behind, flash photography, or disruptive noises.
“There are a myriad of ways animals have been impacted and it would, of course, depend on what part of the world you travel to as a tourist,” adds Gail Fraser, an ecologist with a research focus on birds. Fraser teaches courses on environmental science, ecology, and conservation.
“If we consider traveling from Toronto to the Caribbean Sea, Tortuguero National Park, or Costa Rica, birds may be struck and killed by airplanes. Animals may be struck and killed while driving on the roads in Costa Rica. On the beach by the Tortuguero National Park, artificial lighting may disorient hatchling sea turtles (leatherback, green, hawksbill, and occasionally loggerhead turtles, all species of which are endangered) causing mortality and ultimately reduced populations.”
Fraser also adds that hotels may use disproportionate amounts of water and discharge wastewater directly into the ocean. Waste from local communities (as well as boats) accumulate on beaches, which can trap nesting adult turtles as well as nestling turtles.
While waste from local communities can accumulate, this can quickly rise with high volumes of tourism. To be a conscious traveler, regardless of how far from home you explore, it’s important to be aware of personal water usage and to properly sort your trash depending on local recycling and composting systems.
Sandberg explains that mass tourism, including eco-tourism, is a huge industry with a huge carbon footprint due to the travel that it is associated with, saying that “it also corrupts and changes local economies and people, making them answer to the demands of relatively wealthy tourists.”
Along with the personal and environmental benefits found in slow travel, there are various other reasons why people should consider slow travel over traveling traditionally. Not only does slow travel contribute to the economies that travelers visit, but it can end up being cheaper and more valuable than traditional travel.
By spending more time in one location, the cost of travel has more value than it would have if you were to visit for a short period of time. Additionally, if you have access to kitchen facilities, you can save money by cooking your own meals instead of eating at restaurants. This also offers an exciting opportunity to learn new local recipes or to cook with new ingredients you might not have regular access to at home.
If you are traveling to a location where you don’t speak the language, this is the perfect opportunity to add a few new words to your vocabulary. You can do so by trying to find a local language course for beginners in the area you’re in, or by doing a language exchange with locals.
I had the opportunity to work as a nanny in a small-town north of Paris. During my stay, I had the opportunity to meet up with a local who was wanting to improve their English for an upcoming exam. A language exchange is mutually beneficial, and in this case, the local that I met with was able to practice their language with a native speaker and I was also able to brush up on my French conversation skills.
“Always have a phrase book. It’s the best way to start conversations and show that you care enough to learn their language. The best way is to immerse yourself as much as possible and to spend time with new people,” adds Broderick.
Slow travel can help you to realize and appreciate what is close to home. In Ontario alone, there are various destinations that could offer a life-changing and beautiful experience. For example, you could experience the wonder of Niagara Falls or the beauty of Bruce Peninsula National Park.
Or, with Toronto being a city filled with different cultures, you can experience the cuisine of a new country. Toronto is especially unique because we have access to various fusion restaurants that combine cuisines such as Japanese and Mexican, Italian and Jamaican, or Korean and Ukrainian. The opportunities to explore and immerse yourself in a new food experience is endless.
Slow travel looks different to everyone, depending on your interests and how much time that you are able to spend traveling. Due to the pandemic, some may have the option of working virtually and being able to live abroad for a period of time. Perhaps, some might be able to travel throughout the continent and beyond while living in an up-cycled van, embracing vanlife. Or, it could mean taking a couple of weeks off a year to spend in one location, near or far, to explore and immerse yourself in the environment and local culture.
Regardless of your constraints, slow travel urges people to live in a mindful, present, and open way. Slow travel isn’t so much about physically traveling, but rather, focusing on shifting mindsets to appreciate the beauty of what is currently around you and to think about how you can improve your own environment.