Slowing down - an imperative for sustainable travel

Slowing down - an imperative for sustainable travel

If you care about the idiosyncratic, local character of the places you travel to, if you want to arrive at a destination and feel as if you’ve journeyed somewhere different from home, then you might want to ask whether it is in our combined self-interest to slow down our travels? That seems pretty extreme, even for me. But there is a real issue as to how much tourism the world can absorb without becoming all the same sort of place. And the velocity of travel is linked to that fear. Fast travel increases the tourist flow through a destination, giving a leg up in the local economies for traveler related services at the expense of the indigenous  economy (the urban chic coffee house rather than the mom and pop breakfast diner, the restaurant with translated menus over the local market, the Airbnb letting rooms for a night over apartments occupied by actual locals).

And this is not a small thing. Worldwide international travel “arrivals” (counted as when an individual comes from a foreign country and spends at least one night) are growing at 3.3% a year. While our worldwide population is growing by just a squeak over 1%. In less than 15 years, annual arrivals are expected to be around 1.8 billion. That’s worth stopping and thinking about. It’s 1.8 billion people arriving from some country to another country each year. See UNWTO.

Why is this a problem? Because one of the reasons we go to many places is to experience something different from home. It is a break, if nothing else. But it hopefully it also is enlightening for us in some way, broadening our perspectives precisely because these places ARE different from home. Sure, there are beach vacations where the goal is to relax only. But that isn’t the only sort of travel we seek out. 

But as local economies become addicted to our travel Dollars/Euros/Pounds/Yen/Yuan and to serving our travel needs, they necessarily become more like what we left behind at home. It is almost tautological, though I wont go quite that far. I will leave it at almost.  

To alleviste this a traveler that cares about these places, and the experiences they hope to bring home as memories, can do either of two things. Not travel as much. Or two, travel in a way that has less distortive impact on the local economy and the background noise of the destination. It might not seem obvious, but the faster a tourist moves through a tourist destination the less likely it is that the second target can be fulfilled.   

Lets consider two trips. Each a week long. Each to one single country. Say Italy. Our first traveler, Mr Fast, sees 6 destinations in 7 days, he took a break the first day to get over jet lag. He prudently limits himself to Rome and North, wisely understanding that Southern Italy is a different trip altogether. So he stops at Rome, Sienna, Florence, Pisa, Milan and Venice, then takes a train back to Rome and flies home.

Let’s look at how he will spend his Euros. There will be 6 different days of regional transport. Taxis, intercity coaches, trains or tour bus. He will have limited time in each place so he will eat meals only near the places he wants to see. He will probably have to stay near to them as well.

Mr Fast’s insertion into the local economy will be limited to turning over Euros to people that are there earning a living mainly by servicing people like him. Not for locals. Those Euros may fall into the local economy, trickling down if nothing else, but only after some portion of that economy has been distorted from its original norm in order to handle his needs. 

Now lets look at Ms Slow. She will arrive in Rome by flight and get on a train for one of these places. And then she will check in somewhere and relax. Her days will not be spent on intercity transport. After a day or two she may have exhausted the normal local tourist sights in that location and probably will start to look and experience things farther afield. There is a better chance that she will find a local breakfast spot or coffee shop that doesn’t look like it is from some trendy corner of Brooklyn. She may get on a local bus or subway rather than rely on taxis or Uber to get everywhere. She may even buy a few items from a market to eat while out and about for a snack or lunch.

She will not be a local, but she will start to use the local economy directly. She will eat out, probably a lot, but less and less at just the tourist places I suspect. Her Euros won’t simply trickle down to the locals, they will be spent more where locals spend money themselves. 

But you say there are actually thousands of Ms Slows. Won’t their cumulative impact be comparable to the Mr Fasts? Well, no. Let’s just look at 7 Mr Fasts and 7 Ms Slows all arriving over the course of 7 consecutive weeks.  On any given day the travel density of the Slows and Fasts is the same. About one of each per each location. But they will be acting differently, spending money differently and impacting their destinations differently. You can multiply the Ms Slows and Mr Fasts by thousands and the qualitative differences in their impacts on the local economic environment will still be different. 

Which of Mr Fast and Ms Slow will leave behind a place less modified by the tourists’ demands? Overall, the cumulative impact of all the Mr Fasts in all their destinations they reach on all their trips is going to distort the local experience far more, and in far more places. But it is worthwhile to note that both of them will be leaving behind a weeks worth of Euros in Italy. Tourism helps the Italian economy either way. But Ms Slow’s spent trip money will go directly into and encourage to a greater degree the indigenous economy without being modified. (And let’s be honest, Ms Slow will probably spend less overall.)

Mr Fast on the other hand will have further encouraged mainly just a service oriented travel industry with local services and infrastructure built mainly to serve his foreign needs, and ultimately cater to his foreign tastes as well. Cumulatively, Mr Fast and his cohorts are turning their many destinations into an image of what they expect to see and experience. Not what was actually there before.

And this isn’t something limited to quaint little places around the world. Consider NYC, the least quaint place I know. The tourist in NYC with only a day to explore one of the most energy packed and diverse places on Earth, will go to Times Square, maybe walk uptown a bit through Rockefeller Center and touch the southern outskirts of Central Park, then head downtown to see the memorial at Ground Zero and maybe look from a distance over the water at the Statue of Liberty. There is nothing wrong with any of that, but consider that if that is all people ever make time to see they really are never going to know the place very well. These sights are not indicative of life in NYC, as anyone that lives there will attest. And the impact of all those people in those limited areas has a dramatic impact on these specific locations. Times Square is not, not, not NYC.

It turns out that travel, as with most other activities by civilization, has limits on how much we can do while still being sustainable. What can be done by a few million without much adverse impacts, will devastate an area if engaged in by 100 millions.

Let’s look at agriculture for some parallels. The green revolution in agriculture, which maximizes results through dependence on science, manufactured soil additives, hybrid seeds and lots of well water, isn’t such a big deal if it’s only done here and there. As it takes over the agricultural landscape of the globe, it becomes the problem and not a solution. It needs to be modified to give the local environments a chance to heal and regenerate, not just be exploited and mined. Essentially, agriculture on a global scale needs to be less efficient, less industrial to be sustainable. So too must travel be modified, be made less efficient if these increased tourist numbers become realized.

So consider traveling in a less industrial, assembly-line way. It may seem somewhat of a stretch to equate travel that ticks off multiple stops in as fast a time as possible with putting down fertilizer and pesticides, fattening cattle in overpopulated feedlots, and jacking up livestock with hormones, but the similarities are there.  


If you care about that, you need to slow down. And you may find that the trip is better as well, precisely because it isn’t just a reflection of your own preconceptions and desires being served up by a local tourist industry.


(Extra points for identifying the photo on the title page.) 



©️ 2019 D Abbott