What is Slow Tourism? 9 Best Reasons Why it's the Most Sustainable Way to Travel

April 12, 2020

This year has really thrown us all for a loop, hasn’t it? One minute, we’re all busily planning our next vacation, and the next, the world is at a standstill. As of this writing, we're in Vietnam, and have been in the same city for almost two months. Being here has really solidified the idea of slow tourism for me. This is the longest stretch of time we’ve spent in a city since beginning our travels around the world. 

After our month of fast travel in the Philippines, where we visited Puerto Princesa and Manila, I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty of slow travel. Our almost two years of travel has shown us how much easier it is to travel slowly as a family.

Moving at a slower pace allows us to experience a destination on more than just a surface level. And after seeing the devastating impact travel can have on the health of the global community, I’ve come to believe that slow tourism is the most sustainable way to travel.

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A child riding a bicycle along the Baywalk in Puerto Princes, Philippines while doing slow tourism
Riding bicycles in Puerto Princes, Philippines (February 2020)

Slow travel versus fast travel

Before we started traveling full-time, our travel experiences were often limited by the number of vacation days allotted to us by our jobs. Two to three weeks of vacation a year meant slow tourism was largely out of reach for us. Instead, we would dive quickly into a destination, and try to cram in as many things as we could. We rarely spent more than two or three days at a time in one city.

Predictably, that pace of travel would leave us feeling exhausted. We came home from our trips complaining about how we needed a “vacation” from our vacation.

These days, slow traveling is more often our style. Rather than going from one city to the next every few days, we stay in a city for weeks at a time. Sometimes we’ll stay for a month in a destination. And instead of packing in as many activities as possible, we choose just one thing to do each day. The rest of the day is open for hanging out. This pace of travel feels more like we’re traveling like a local, rather than just visiting like a tourist. 

Being involuntarily situated here in Vietnam for the past month, we have had a chance to see what day to day life is like for the Vietnamese. From the vantage point of our Airbnb balcony, we see families living their lives, trying to make sense of the world right now. And we also get a chance to truly feel the pulse of the city. We never would have felt this if we had flown in and flown out of Vietnam within just a few days.

The Thang Long Citadel in Hanoi, Vietnam, a destination for slow tourism
Thang Long Citadel in Hanoi, Vietnam (March 2020)

How to travel slowly as a family

For the average family, who has a limited amount of vacation days, maintaining a slow travel mindset can be challenging. It’s natural to want to fit in as many activities as you can into your travel days. After all, you reason, you’re paying all this money to travel, why not get your money’s worth?

But slow travel isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. What good is visiting a place if you’re only skimming the surface? How much of a vacation will you remember if you’re exhausted most of the time? And more important these days, what risks might you pose to the health of a community by dropping in and going to as many places as possible?

My biggest tip for families to get started on slow travel is to let go of the expectation that you need to do everything and see everything. Instead, prioritize the places that mean the most to you. This could be a city that you just need to visit, or a site that you really want to see. The rest of the time, leave it open for family time or hanging out like the locals would do. 

I suggest that parents plan to visit at least one city per week during their vacation, maybe even two weeks. This way, you’ll have more time to experience the parts of the city that aren’t so crowded with tourists. You’ll be able to find your own local hangout!

Click here to learn more about how to slow travel more with your kids and become a worldschooling family.

Taking a walk in Lyon, France during a housesitting gig (July 2019)

Why slow tourism is the most sustainable type of travel

Besides allowing families to actually relax on their vacations, slow tourism is also a more sustainable way to travel. It can be more environmentally friendly than fast travel, and also more beneficial to the local economy. Take a look at some reasons why I think slow tourism is the most sustainable type of travel.

Riding scooters in Hanoi, Vietnam (March 2020)

1. Fewer flights means fewer carbon emissions

I saw an article in Forbes recently about how the decrease in flights from this global health outbreak has led to a decrease in carbon emissions. There’s something to be said about how slowing down our travel can truly make a positive impact on the environment. Flights are the biggest culprits of carbon emissions, and if we can minimize our reliance on air travel, then we can go a long way towards minimizing our carbon footprint.

Other forms of transportation, such as cars (which is the most efficient form of transportation for families of four or more), buses, and trains, produce fewer carbon emissions per person. And fortunately, they also work as great transportation options for slow tourism.

The view from an AeroMexico flight (October 2018)

2. You’re supporting the local economy when you travel slowly

When you travel slowly, you’re less likely to stay at hotels. I mean, who wants to live in a hotel for a month? When we travel, we often stay at vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, where we shop at local markets, eat at local restaurants, and frequent local businesses. 

Slow tourism gives families more opportunities to support the local economy. Because they’re not pressed for time, families can seek out local businesses that are new to them, rather than relying on familiar brands and businesses that are found all over the world.

While slow traveling in Mexico, for example, we frequented many local stores and restaurants. In fact, we loved trying out a new local restaurant each day that we were in Mexico.

The Malecon in Progreso (January 2021)

3. When you travel slowly, you really experience the culture 

Related to this, slow travel really lends itself to cultural immersion. This is essentially one of the lessons I've learned from traveling internationally with kids. When you have more time to spend in a destination, you give yourself more time to stroll through back alleys and unknown streets. You allow for more afternoons at the park. And you afford yourself more chances to stumble upon local events.

All of these opportunities allow families to truly experience a culture, rather than just being a paying bystander. For example, at our language school in Indonesia, we participated in Independence Day activities with other Indonesians. And in Mexico, spending Christmas in Guanajuato allowed us to experience many of the Mexican holiday traditions, like the Las Posadas procession, which is a reenactment of the nativity. These worldschooling experiences really help enrich the travel experience for ourselves and our kids. 

Holiday celebrations and dancing in Guanajuato, Mexico (December 2018)

4. More opportunities to connect with the locals

Since slow tourism gives families more opportunities to experience the local culture, it also gives them more opportunities to connect with locals. Our kids enjoy playing with other kids at the parks and playgrounds we visit. And being in a destination for an extended period of time gives us a chance to take language classes, so that we can communicate better with locals. We appreciate the time we get to spend with the locals we meet during our travels, and learning about their lives.  

Dancing during a full moon ceremony in Amed, Indonesia (September 2019)

5. Get a chance to go beyond the tourist path

Slow travel really gives families a chance to go beyond the tourist path. When you only have a few days to spend in a destination, it’s hard to justify going off the beaten path. Again, you don’t want to miss out on the spots and activities that make that city or destination famous.

But when you have longer time to spend in a destination, you can go beyond the tourist spots. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, we discovered a fun catch-your-own-fish restaurant that isn’t mentioned in any guidebook. And during our stay in Italy, we really enjoyed discovering all the food experiences in the less-touristy city of Parma.

Wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at a dairy in Parma, Italy, where families can do slow tourism to learn about agriculture
Wheels of parmesan cheese in Parma, Italy (June 2019)

6. Slow tourism allows travelers to distribute their tourist dollars more equitably

One of the things that slow tourism can do is to more equitably distribute your tourist dollars. Cities like Venice, Italy or Ubud, Indonesia are hot spots for tourists. And they sustain themselves from tourism income. But neighboring towns or regions don’t often get the same tourist love because most tourists don’t have the time to venture off the beaten path when they’re trying to pack a multi-country tour into two weeks.

Spending more time in a destination allows you to distribute your tourist dollars more equitably in a country. You can still spend a day or two in Paris, France, but also spend a couple of days venturing out to other cities like Lyon. Likewise, you can visit the island of Bali in Indonesia, but also be sure to visit other islands like Lombok or Sumatra.

Restaurants along Pantai Ampenan near Mataram, Indonesia (November 2019)

7. Traveling slowly is cheaper and more sustainable for families

In my opinion, families actually spend less money when they travel slowly compared to when they travel fast. Looking back on our travel costs for our trips to Indonesia, for example, we spent less money (over $2,000 less!) in one month in Indonesia in 2019 than we did when we visited there for three weeks in 2015. 

Most of the cost savings come from airfare and lodging. By limiting the number of destinations in your trip, you lower your airfare costs. And by booking longer term stays at accommodations, you can take advantage of weekly or monthly discounts. Cooking your own food rather than constantly eating at restaurants can also help stretch your travel dollars.

Take a look at other tips to travel the world more affordably here.

Walking through a market in Puerto Princesa, Philippines (February 2020)

8. Slow tourism as a means of minimizing health outbreaks

Our current global health situation is making us all realize that travel can really have an impact on the health of communities around the world. Much of the spread of COVID-19 was due to people traveling from one country to another. 

As a traveler, trying to minimize your travel can truly make a difference in our current fight against COVID-19, and for future health outbreaks. When you travel slowly, you limit the number of destinations you visit during your trip, and thereby decrease the risk of spread. And allowing for more time in a destination means you’re not stressing out about missing your flight if somehow you find yourself being asked to self-quarantine or self-isolate. 

A street in Hanoi, Vietnam, where families can do slow tourism
The streets of Hanoi, Vietnam during social isolation (March 2020)

9. Gain a better understanding of the destination and your impact

The most important reason that slow tourism is the most sustainable way to travel, though, is that it allows families to gain a better understanding of the destinations they visit and the impact their presence can have on destinations. Our travels these past two years have allowed us to see how we, as travelers, truly do impact the lives of the places we visit, whether it’s good or bad.

In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I saw how the influx of expats has caused housing prices in the city to be prohibitively more expensive for local families. And while snorkeling in Amed, Indonesia, swimming through plastic trash made me realize how we need to minimize our reliance on plastic. That's why I now travel with reusable metal straws and a Grayl bottle.

But I’ve also seen good things come out of tourism. In Puerto Escondido, Mexico, we saw a travel company using tourism as a way to promote sea turtle conservation. And in Ubud, Indonesia, being able to experience traditional Balinese life was truly eye-opening for my kids and me.

To reduce your reliance on single-use plastic, buy these products for your next trip:

Set of 10 Stainless Steel Straws

GRAYL GeoPress 24 oz Water Purifier Bottle

Bee’s Wrap Reusable Beeswax Food Wraps

A local apartment building in Hanoi, Vietnam (March 2020)

How to practice slow tourism when your vacation days are limited 

I know that slow tourism may be difficult for the average family to do. When it’s safe to travel again, I doubt that the number of vacation days available to families will increase. The reality is, if we really want to commit to slow travel, we need to find ways to make it work, within the limits of our vacation days.

Fortunately, it’s not as hard as you would think. Like much of what this global health outbreak is teaching us these days, all it takes is just a change in your mindset. We need to start seeing travel as a means for transformation and learning, rather than just entertainment. Stop simply checking places off your bucket list, and start truly understanding a culture.

Visiting Ninh Binh in Vietnam (February 2020)

Choose one destination to visit rather than multiple destinations

One way that families can travel slowly is by simply decreasing the number of destinations you visit during your trips. Choose one destination, and spend more time there. If you only have two weeks to spare for your vacations, find a city that you’ve always wanted to explore and go there. Rent a vacation rental, and experience living there for two weeks with your family. Use books like Adventures Around The Globe and other books in Lonely Planet's Adventures In series to learn more about the destinations you're visiting.

Buy the book here: Adventures Around The Globe

Walking through a neighborhood in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (August 2019)

Practice slow tourism by traveling closer to home

As travel restrictions begin to loosen up, I foresee more of us traveling locally. This is a great way that families can practice slow tourism. Choose a city that’s close to your home, and take multiple weekend visits there. Visit the local parks, local museums, and local businesses. When we were living in Seattle, Washington, we really enjoyed our weekend visits to nearby cities like Portland, Oregon and Spokane, Washington.

Exploring at a science museum in Spokane, Washington (August 2018)

Resist the temptation to see everything

The biggest thing that families can do to shift towards a slow travel mindset, is to let go of the need to see everything. It’s okay if you don’t climb the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It’s okay if you go to New York City and never visit Times Square. And it’s okay if you’re in Rome and you don’t get to see the Colosseum. Like anything, slow tourism is a trade off.

As I mentioned before, you’re trading the quantity of experiences for the quality of experiences. In the end, having a trip that you remember is far better than having a trip where you can only remember the names of the places you visit.

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, New York (September 2018)

Making a commitment to slow tourism in the future

The world of travel is changing. This global health outbreak is making sure of that. And for me, I am choosing to help change the world of travel for the better.

As our family continues on our around the world trip, I am doubling down on my commitment to slow tourism. To me, it’s one of the ways we can make travel sustainable for future generations. And I invite all of you families to make the same commitment too. Let’s all choose to travel in a way that is more enriching and meaningful.

Do you already practice slow tourism? What are some ways that you do it with your family? Share them in the comments!

Learn more ways that you can travel more responsibly with your family here.

Why Slow Tourism Is the Most Sustainable Way To Travel For Families | The Wandering Daughter

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