For many travelers, the prepandemic pace of whirlwind getaways and bucket-list-skimming trips seems so 2019. Now, as destinations cautiously reopen, travelers who spent a year or more confronted by climate change, social activism and a lack of human connection are embracing slow motion as a sustainable speed for exploring the world.
Marguerite Hanley, a native Californian who lives in Amsterdam, is one of those travelers. “After a year of being forced to look inward, we have all realized the value and impact of our actions, both globally in terms of Covid, as humans infringing on habitat, and how we treat people in our community,” said Ms. Hanley, who recently decided to decelerate an ambitious honeymoon in Africa planned for next March. Instead of a whirlwind trip that included a Botswana safari, a visit to Cape Town and an exploration of South African wine country, she scaled down to concentrate on a few camps in Botswana that support conservation and local communities.
“It made sense to stay longer, bring our euros to a couple of communities and reduce our carbon footprint, too,” she said.
Slow travel grew out of the slow food movement, which emphasizes sustainable, local and organic food, and prizes artisanal traditions. It isn’t new — the appeal of walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, for example, has endured for centuries. But it’s attracting more travelers now for a variety of reasons: as a salve to social distancing, a response to flight-shaming, a meditative breather or an exercise of pandemic-inspired caution. These more mindful trips involve visiting fewer places and sometimes transiting slower, whether by car, train, bike, foot or canoe.
“While typical travel is all about what you do, slow travel emphasizes how you do it,” Kyle Kowalski, the founder of Sloww, a website devoted to slow living, wrote in an email. “Instead of a jam-packed itinerary, slow travel is about intentionally choosing where you will do less in order to experience more. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next, slow travel is about balance and pace, leaving open time to create space and spontaneity.”
A pandemic-inspired pace
Whether they wanted to or not, many people have experienced a slower life during the pandemic, which has fed the slow travel movement.
The environmental gains witnessed during the pandemic as travel ebbed convinced Julia Douglas, a social media manager in Los Angeles, to walk whenever possible rather than order an Uber. On a recent trip from New York City to Buffalo, N.Y., she took an eight-hour train ride rather than fly as part of an effort “to make small changes that would prolong the improvement in pollution, which the world saw when traveling by plane almost completely stopped,” she said.
While commuter train ridership has suffered during the pandemic, long-distance train travel has shown signs of resurgence. Amtrak Vacations, a tour operator that bundles hotels, excursions and travel by train, said bookings were up 47 percent this year to date compared to 2019. In Europe, where 2021 has been designated the European Year of Rail by the European Union to highlight sustainable transportation, long-distance train travel has been revived. Night train networks have made a comeback and one start-up, Midnight Trains, plans to launch luxury sleeper cars on routes from Paris to more than 10 cities beginning in 2024.
Work-from-anywhere policies, born of the pandemic, enabled many to stretch their trips. Airbnb said its stays of 28 days or more had increased 10 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. Exclusive Resorts, a membership home rental service, said bookings of 21 days or more grew 550 percent in 2021 compared to 2019.
The time-consuming requirements of travel today, such as testing or applying for entry, also tend to slow things down.
“In the before times, it was common for travelers to pack in as many destinations and countries as possible, and a Southern Africa safari could include two, three or four countries,” said Jeremy Townsend, the marketing director for Next Adventures, based in Berkeley, Calif. “Today, with required Covid tests for entry and spotty flight connections, our clients are opting for single-country safaris to places like Kenya, Uganda or Zambia that offer a wide variety of experiences with the convenience of reliable international access.”
Getting a Covid-19 test 72 hours before returning to the United States from abroad, as required, is a natural brake.
“Traveling is complicated right now, and we’re recommending that clients add on a few days at the end of their vacation near to their departure point, in order to more easily deal with the requirements for testing before getting onto a flight home,” said Simon Scutt, the director of On Foot Holidays, which specializes in European walking tours.
But it’s not just practicalities pumping the brakes. There’s a calming appeal to travelers who may feel overwhelmed after more than a year of nervous coexistence with the coronavirus.
In anticipation of Norway’s recent opening to vaccinated American travelers, Up Norway, a bespoke travel company, began selling the concept of “kos,” a Norwegian term for peace, harmony and gratitude cultivated “when one takes their time traveling, soaking in the simple joys of culture and natural beauty,” according to a news release touting 28-day stays in remote areas of the country.
It’s a far cry from seeing Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the Roman Colosseum — the package-trip hit parade — in a week.
“We used to book a lot of Europe and Asia where people just wanted to check spots off their list,” said Denise Ambrusko-Maida, a travel adviser and the owner of the travel agency Travel Brilliant in Buffalo, N.Y. “People are pulling away from tourist hot spots. They don’t want to be crammed in and shuffling along in lines.”
Rebecca Werner, a Chicago-based travel adviser with Protravel, recently booked a summer train trip to Glacier National Park for a Wisconsin family of four who are fans of the Netflix mini-series “The Queen’s Gambit.” It was a “good way to catch up with their kids and see some good scenery, plus play some chess on the train,” she said.
For these travelers, pursuing personal passions has supplanted the bucket list.
Working with the bespoke travel agency Untold Story Travel, David Demers of Naples, Fla., is organizing two nearly monthlong trips next year to Israel and the Mediterranean with ample time to pursue his interests in history, theater, food and art.
“In the past, travel was about packing in as much as you can, running around checking boxes, which becomes mechanical,” said Mr. Demers, who recently sold his health care company. “The pandemic taught us all that it’s OK to not go fast, to focus on what’s important.”
With that in mind, the travel company Sojrn recently launched monthlong trips staying in one destination, each with an educational theme such as philosophy in Athens, wine in Italy or Spanish language in Colombia. Travelers stay in local apartments and participate in weekly dinners and events, leaving lots of unstructured time to work and explore.
“I’m trying not to plan everything out to the minute like I have done in the past,” said Cara Wright, of Apple Valley, Minn., who plans to continue working for a nonprofit while in Italy in October with Sojrn.
A sustainable speed
For others, like Donna Hetrick, a potter based in Pittsburgh who is bound for Africa, slow travel is about reducing their environmental impact.
“I couldn’t justify a two-week safari,” said Ms. Hetrick, who instead plans to spend several months biking in Africa beginning in 2022 with TDA Global Cycling. In addition to amortizing her carbon footprint and seeing a place in depth, the long trip offers connection. “When you’re on a bicycle, you are accessible to people,” she said.
As a form of tourism that espouses treading lightly, going off the beaten path, connecting with community and patronizing locally owned businesses — all tenets of sustainable travel — slow tourism is also being championed as a correction to overtourism, the kind of overcrowding that plagued destinations such as Dubrovnik before the pandemic.
“Slow tourism is more sustainable because people tend to spend more time in a destination and spread out,” said Martha Honey, the former executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel and co-editor of the book “Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future.
She describes slow travel as a “win-win” for both the traveler, who engages more deeply in a destination, and the destination, which sees the benefits of travel dispersed, and credits the recent buy-local movement, forged in the pandemic as communities pulled together to keep local businesses afloat, for popularizing slow principles.
“It’s less disruptive and more economically beneficial,” Ms. Honey added.
As indicated by the popularity of destinations such as Alaska and Montana this summer, travelers continue to avoid densely populated places. In a recent survey of more than 800 travelers in five countries, including the United States, by Flywire, a payment-processing service, three-quarters said they would look for an uncrowded destination when they travel.
For eco-conscious explorers who cling to Phileas Fogg-like ambitions of circumnavigating the globe, but fret over their impact, the sustainable tour operator Responsible Travel recently introduced an 11-week trip — roughly 80 days — around the world by train and cargo ship, crossing Europe to Central Asia, following the Silk Road to China, then shipping out across the Pacific for North America.
“The journey becomes part of the travel experience rather than just a way of getting from A to B,” said Anna Rice, a manager at Responsible Travel who spent a year beginning in 2011 traveling around the world by train and ship, and discovering, among other things, that Vietnam, China, Russia and Poland all had a similar dumpling with a different name. “You become much more aware of your surroundings and how countries are connected in subtle ways in terms of culture and their environments.”
Moving at the speed of humans
For those to whom trains and freighters are too mechanized, human-powered travel, such as hiking, biking and paddling, allow for maximum exposure to nature and the small details blurred at higher speeds.
“You get to see things you don’t see in a car because you’re going slow,” said Kristi Growdon, a personal golf trainer based in Seattle who took a cycling trip to Utah in April with VBT Bicycling Vacations. The company has nearly sold out all domestic departures this year. At the Maine Island Trail Association, which manages a route across more than 200 undeveloped islands along the Maine coast, membership, which includes access to trail information, jumped 23 percent last year.
A sea kayak “takes you into a place other boats cannot go, the intertidal zone,” said Michael Daugherty, the co-owner of Sea Kayak Stonington, which offers boat rentals and guided trips to some of the islands on the trail. “There’s tide and swell and it’s dynamic, and you’re much more aware of that in a small boat.”
He runs the business with his wife, Rebecca Daugherty, an artist, and together they have paddled 625 miles along the Maine coast, producing the 2020 illustrated book “Upwest & Downeast.”
“I’m a painter, and it takes a while to see a place,” Ms. Daugherty said. “I felt on that 55-day trip, it wasn’t slow enough.”
New ways to slow down
Where there’s a trend in travel, tour operators follow, as indicated by a new wave of relaxed vacation packages.
The active travel company Backroads, launched a division this year called Dolce Tempo, offering a less ambitious pace. Nearly all 2021 trips are sold out; in 2022, it plans to add 100 new Dolce Tempo departures at home and abroad, including Scandinavia, England and along the Danube River.
Motorists can drive from Denver to Moab, Utah, in about five and a half hours. But beginning in August, riders of the Rocky Mountaineer train can cover the route in two days on a scenic ride with an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colo. The new Rockies to the Red Rocks route has been so popular the company has added capacity and extended its inaugural season to Nov. 19. Notably, there is no Wi-Fi onboard.
In southern Utah, the new Aquarius Trail Hut System stations five backcountry huts — fashioned from recycled shipping containers and powered by solar energy — across a 190-mile bicycling route from Brian Head Peak to the town of Escalante. Cyclists pedal in the Dixie National Forest through the hoodoos of Red Canyon and skirt Bryce Canyon National Park.
Jared Fisher, who owns the Las Vegas-based cycling outfitter Escape Adventures, developed the Aquarius Trail Hut System over five years to make “bike-packing” — or backpacking via bike — accessible by including food and bedding, which reduces the amount of gear and planning required. An avid bike-packer, Mr. Fisher has ridden across the United States three times.
“Personally, I enjoy the freedom and head space” of traveling by bike, he said. “I love to be out in nature and feel it, smell it, taste it.”
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