Slow tourism explained: What, why and where

Nov 7, 2019 | Learn about tourism, Tourism management, Types of tourism

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(Last updated on: 19/10/2020)

The slow tourism industry isn’t one that is necessarily well publicised. In fact, many people have never heard of slow tourism. It does, however, comprise a significant proportion of the broader tourism industry worldwide. In parallel with an increased awareness of the importance of sustainability amongst the general public, the slow tourism movement is now bigger than ever before.

As part of my types of tourism series, this post will discuss the concept of slow tourism.

What is slow tourism?

Slow tourism is based on the concept of speed. It involves travelling for a prolonged period of time at a slow pace, allowing the tourist a deep, authentic and cultural experience.

An alternative tourism form, slow travel is typically associated with sustainable practices, taking into consideration the impacts of travel on the environment, society and economy.

Slow travel can be undertaken in any destination, but is particularly popular amongst traditional backpacking routes in destinations such as South East Asia, Central America or Australia. It is also commonly identified in popular road trip areas, such as Canada, Australia or the United States.

Slow tourism definitions

Defining slow tourism isn’t as easy as it might seem. Whilst at the core of the term is the notion of speed, there is indeed more encompassed in the concept of slow tourism than this.

There is a general consensus amongst academics that, contrary to its title, slow tourism is not solely about speed. In fact, it is indeed focussed more predominantly around the notion of sustainable travel, allowing for a more cultural and environmental friendly solution to travel.

Read also: Cultural tourism explained: What, why and where

Dickinson and Lumsdon (2010) define slow tourism as:

‘A conceptual framework that involves people who ‘travel to destinations more slowly overland, stay longer and travel less’ and who incorporate travel to a destination as itself an experience and, once at the destination, engage with local transport options and ‘slow food and beverage,’ take time to explore local history and culture, and support the environment.’

Lipman and Murphy (2012) pertain that sustainable consumption through ‘slower’ transport and products, reduced mobility, and ‘less’ travel are fundamental to the concept of slow tourism.

Taking the slow boat to Gili Air off the coast of Bali

Furthermore, Moore (2012) emphasises that in order for tourism to be ‘slow’, it must redact the principles of traditional ‘fast tourism’, such as package holidays and organised tours.

Whilst said academics are in agreement that travel must be ‘slow’, there is little consensus on what ‘slow’ actually means and how it is practiced or interpreted in relation to different tourism contexts, cultures, and mobilities” (Fullagar, Markwell, and Wilson 2012). In other words, what is ‘slow’ in one situation, to one person, may not be ‘slow’ in a different circumstance.

The origins of slow tourism

The notion of slow tourism derives from the food industry.

The slow food movement was developed in Italy during the late 1980s (Dickenson, 2002) and has become more and more popular throughout the decades. The aim of slow food is to prevent local food cultures and traditions from disappearing, to counteract the rise of fast life and to raise public interest in the food we eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.

The premise between slow food and slow tourism is the same: both industries are interrelated with many other aspects of life, including culture, politics, agriculture and the environment.

The three pillars of slow tourism

Dickinson et al. define slow tourism according to three distinct pillars.

  • 1- Doing things in the right speed
  • 2- Changing the attitude towards speed
  • 3- Seeking quality over quantity

Now, it is important to note that the above statements are subjective. What is the ‘right’ speed? What type of attitude should one have? How do we define ‘quality’?

Generally speaking, people tend to associate slow tourism with a slower pace of life. Many of the stresses associated with travel are alleviated or reduced. Slow tourism involves spending longer in one place, getting to know the area and the community. Slow tourism involves the tourist slowing down, and often doing less, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the surroundings, community, and authentic culture.

Read also: Smart tourism explained: What, why and where

Some suggest that slow travel should avoid the use of air and car travel. Instead, tourists should use alternative means of transport that are more environmentally friendly. Whilst may often be the case for slow tourists, it is not, in my opinion, a defining characteristic.

Slow tourism and sustainability

Slow tourism demonstrates strong links with sustainable tourism.

Slow travel will often involve getting to know the local community within which you are staying. Perhaps tourists will stay in a homestay or a local Airbnb.

Instead of racing to see the top sights before your return flight home, slow tourists will take their time sightseeing. They will typically read all of the exhibits in the museums, sit an enjoy the sights and sounds over a coffee or whilst reading a book and see many of the lesser-known attractions in the area.

Because slow tourists will often be embarking on long-term travel plans, they are often more money conscious than the tourist who is taking their annual vacation. These tourists are more likely to eat in local restaurants and are less willing to spend their money in Western chains that are expensive in comparison.

Goa travel itinerary
Trying the local foods in Goa

This type of behaviour promotes positive social impacts of tourism; allowing tourists to learn more about the local culture and have an authentic travel experience. It also promotes positive economic impacts of tourism as money is more likely to stay within the community, demonstrating less economic leakage from tourism.

Lastly, the negative environmental impacts of tourism are often mitigated or reduced through slow tourism, because travellers tend to think more consciously and will often choose more environmentally means of transport.

Types of slow tourism

So now we understand what slow tourism is, but what does it look like in practice?

Well, there is no straight answer to this question, because slow tourism comes in many shapes and forms! But here are a few examples:

Backpacking

Backpacking is typically a form of slow tourism because of its speed. Backpacking trips can range from month-long adventures in Europe to round the world backpacking tours.

Whilst backpacking trips do not always demonstrate the sustainable mindset that is often associated with slow travel amongst tourists (particularly young backpackers travelling to party destinations in Thailand or Australia), there is an inevitable proportion of social benefits that will naturally raise from slow travel. Backpackers might still choose to fly, but they have probably chosen to eat and stay local, too.

Roadtrips

Roadtrips are categorised as trips that involve substantial travel by road. OK, so the use of a car or motorhome isn’t the most environmentally friendly mode of transport, but a road trip will allow a tourist to have a slow experience, if this is what they choose.

One of my favourite family travel bloggers, Travel Mad Mum, for example, is about to embark on a road trip from the UK to New Zealand with her husband and two young children. This is a great example of slow travel!

Business travel

Many people will travel on business. Business tourism can be either long or short term and it can involve travelling to one destinations or multiple different places.

Business travel can be a form of slow tourism because it can require the traveller to spend long period of time in a destination. I met a lady on my travels to Jeju with the kids who has been working in India for several months on a project as part of her job. She travelled to many different areas for business and had a deep cultural experience. This was a good example of slow tourism.

Volunteer tourism

Volunteer tourism is the act of visiting a destination for the purposes of undertaking voluntary work.

Volunteer tourists can take part in many different types of projects, including those that work with the environment or the local community. Either way, volunteer tourism projects typically last for a month or more in duration and involve a significant level of integration with the host community.

Visiting friends and family (VFR)

Visiting friends and family is one of the largest areas of the travel and tourism industry, and it continues to grow. More anymore of us are relocating or expatriating and then use our leisure time to visit our friends and relatives, wherever in the world they may be based.

Prolonged trips can be considered a type of slow tourism. Often such trips will allow the tourist to immerse themselves within the local community and to have a deep cultural experience. Since moving to China, I have had friends that have come to visit. Most people who visit Hangzhou will spend only a couple of days here, whereas my visitors have stayed for several weeks and have had a highly cultural and deep experience.

Hiking/cycling/active pursuits

Travel involving the environment is popular amongst slow tourists. Hiking and cycling are two examples. When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, this could be considered slow tourism because of the slow pace that was taken. Likewise, many cycling tours are considered forms of slow tourism.

Slow tourism destinations

Slow tourism can take place anywhere around the world. However, there are some parts of the world that are particularly popular with slow tourists and are that are well known for the types of tourism noted above.

Here are some examples of popular slow tourism destinations.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a popular route for slow travel, particularly amongst twenty-something backpackers.

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are popular hotspots for young travellers looking for an authentic travel experience with some of their favourite commodities from home, a few familiar faces and a great party atmosphere thrown in.

Travelling on the sleeper buses through Vietnam or by slow boat in Laos are great examples of slow travel that allow the traveller to experience a deep cultural and authentic travel experience.

See what it’s like to take a slow boat in Laos in this video

Read also: Insta tourism explained: What, why and where

Australia

Australia is another popular destination for slow travel. This vast country attracts intrepid explorers as well as holiday makers.

If time isn’t an issue then you can easily spend months travelling through Australia. Many people choose to undertake slow travel in Australia using a motorhome.

This series entitled Trip in a Van shows you what it is like to slow travel by road in Australia

The United States of America

Another slow travel destination that is popular work road trips is the Unites States of America.

America is huge so the options are endless! Personally, I would love to road trip Route 66 someday…

The top sights to see on Route 66

Europe

Interrail passes have given slow travel a boost in Europe. These affordable train travel passes have encouraged many people to travel through Europe and have helped to boost tourism in some areas.

A guide to inter railing Europe

Slow tourism: Conclusion

Slow tourism is an area that is growing in popularity. Changes in societal attitudes and awareness regarding sustainability issues have contributed to the growth in slow travel. Slow tourism has also grown due to increased holiday time offered in jobs around the world and because of the many options to work remotely nowadays.

Despite the growth in slow tourism, however, it remains to be relatively under researched. If you want to learn more about the slow tourism industry, there are a few key texts listed below.

Further reading on slow tourism

If you would like to learn more about slow tourism, I would recommend that you consult the following sources:

  • Slow tourism experiences and mobilities– An edited book which introduces and places the concept of slow tourism. This is the most commonly cited text on the subject.
  • Slow tourism, food and cities– Offers key theoretical insights and alternative perspectives on the varying practices and meanings of slow from a cultural, sociological and ethical perspective. It is a valuable text for students and scholars of sociology, geography, urban studies, social movements, travel and tourism, and food studies.
  • Slow Travel and Tourism (Tourism, Environment and Development)– This book defines slow travel and to discuss how some underlining values are likely to pervade new forms of sustainable development.
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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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