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What is slow travel?

Despite being a buzzword in the travel industry, many people (including, until we started researching this article, us) don’t know what “slow travel” actually is. It has been described as a philosophy, an ideology, a lifestyle choice, a new way of travelling, and – according to some fans – an attempt to reject the new while simultaneously embracing the old.

Inspired by the lack of clarity surrounded a travel trend that’s supposed to be all about simplicity, we decided to dig deep and work out what, exactly, slow travel means.

Ganges at sunset

Ganges at sunset

What is it?

At its most simple, slow travel centres around three rules for travel. One, focus on the journey. Two, get to know the locals. Three, protect the environment. These three rules are very familiar but until recently they existed as separate types of travel, rarely in combination.

Travellers might have once talked about “doing an Eat Pray Love” (the multi-million bestselling travel book about self-discovery by Elizabeth Gilbert) or “going Wild” (Cheryl Strayed’s journey of self-actualisation) and sometimes these self-discovery odysseys involved meeting local people but the environment rarely featured as a consideration.

'Attain inner peace' doesn't really work on a checklist

'Attain inner peace' doesn't really work on a checklist

In a similar way, until recently ecotourism was seen as something that travellers did for the planet and any self-fulfillment was a happy side effect but not really the point. Eco-friendly travellers might want to spend their money with local businesses (rather than big chains) but this was seen as only a small part of the experience and not an enriching thing to do for it’s own sake.

Slow travel is the first time that enjoying the journey, connecting with the locals, and caring for the environment have been brought together.

As we've long suspected: fast food = inspirational

As we've long suspected: fast food = inspirational

Where did it come from?

Slow travel was inspired by the 1986 slow food movement that developed in protest at the opening of a fast food restaurant in Rome, right next to the Spanish Steps. Slow food was designed to promote local, traditional, food and this extended to both the way food was served and how it was produced.

As the world became even more connected, flights got shorter, and WiFi connections got faster, some travellers began to adapt the slow food movement, creating slow travel. They were concerned with unhurried, low-impact, community-focused travel and it didn’t take long for the rest of the world to get on board.

The Inlandsbanan trainline in Sweden

The Inlandsbanan trainline in Sweden

Enjoy the journey

“It’s all about the journey” is hardly the most original sentiment but the concept behind it is still fairly radical. Slow travel isn’t about getting somewhere as quickly as possible, instead it’s about making the journey a key part of your holiday.

Slow travellers take inspiration from 19th-century travellers like Théophile Gautier, who rejected the “cult of speed” (at the time everyone was travelling by this new-fangled contraption called a “stagecoach”). Today, travellers are also rejecting speed and embracing journey-centric travel like road trips, famous train journeys, or opting to travel by boat.

Travel like the locals

Travel like the locals

Connect with the locals

Gautier isn’t the only writer inspiring slow travellers: the 19th-century Swiss explorer, Isabelle Eberhardt, is also popular in the movement. Eberhardt believed that the best way to get to know a place was to travel in the same way as the locals, whether that was on foot, coach, or even donkey.

The idea being that rather than dashing between famous landmarks, anxiously ticking things off a detailed itinerary, travellers are better served by spending time with the locals. By seeing a place through the eyes of the people who live there, slow travellers hope to gain a deeper knowledge of every destination.

Tweak your travel plans to protect landscapes like this

Tweak your travel plans to protect landscapes like this

Care for the environment

The third and final part of slow travel is thinking about the impact a trip will have on the environment. This can be about the positive parts of travelling (supporting local economies and staying at eco-friendly locations) or mitigating the negative impact (carbon footprint offsetting).

By choosing a slower form of transportation travellers gain new experiences without worrying about the impact long plane journeys have on the environment. But it’s not just about that. For many people slow travel is also about giving something back to the places they visit by being respectful of the environment around them.