Person sitting on the dock of a bay watching sunset

There is more to slow travel than speed. | Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

October 19, 2021

As we enter the post-pandemic phase of travel, it’s promising to see an increasing amount of consumer-facing content encouraging people to embrace “slow” travel. “Slow travel” in this context tends to be focused literally on slowing down — taking more time to get to know destinations, not rushing from place to place, and prioritizing what to do instead of trying to do it all.

Some of this consumer-facing content emphasizes that slow travel is a way to approach experiences with an eye toward connection. Slow travel suggests that people should not plan every minute of every day, minimize activity while experiencing more, support local communities, and find joy through the act of travel.

This is all great advice — and a very promising shift from a hurried, bucket list-focused form of traveling. But what a lot of these articles often fail to suggest is how to make sense of this new way of moving through the world as a traveler, and that’s where the real power of “slow travel” lies. Travelers who can make the move from “slow” actions and choices to a “slow” mindset that encourages critical thinking and reflection are actually shifting from responsible travel to more mindful travel. From a holistic perspective, that is far more potent because it has the potential to extend beyond the travel experience, impacting travelers and their own communities long after they’ve returned home.

The tourism industry can help travelers close this gap by providing space, time, and guidance. While tour operators are in a prime position to do this throughout a trip, other service providers and even destinations can find creative ways to integrate the “slow” mindset into their offerings as well.

Offer Background Context

Travelers will do their own research prior to their trips, but you can provide an array of resources on your website or through social media to kick off that research. Seek out varying perspectives and storytellers that provide different lenses of understanding about a place. Keep in mind that the dominant narrative is dominant for a reason, so specifically seek out stories, information, and insight from Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities. 

Also, ensure that this collection of background information isn’t strictly books or articles. Include video clips, podcasts, music, interviews, and other forms of content that allow people to access and begin learning about a place in different ways.

Keep this kind of information handy throughout a trip so when travelers show a deeper interest in something, there are additional resources you can point them to for further consideration. 

Introduce Multiple Storylines

A single story is easy for people to understand and tuck away. But, as noted above, there is no single story about a place. Different people have different stories, histories, and perspectives. Encourage travelers to consider multiple perspectives throughout their travels.

Every place is complex and multi-faceted, and that’s what also makes places interesting. That’s why people travel. But, the tourism industry needs to be willing to empower — and appropriately pay — a variety of storytellers to share their perspectives, even if those stories are uncomfortable and might paint tourism in an unpleasant light.

There is no one “right” story. And, chances are the many storylines that do exist intersect with each other in complicated and unpleasant ways. But it’s only when people are introduced to these many nuances that they have the foundation to start grappling with the essence of a place on a much deeper level.

Make Time for Reflection

As travelers begin taking on more information, they need to do something with it. The “slow” movement, by its very nature, reminds people not to go so fast — to leave blank space. Tour operators can do the same by building in time periodically for travelers to reflect upon what they’ve learned and experienced. These are conversations that might naturally happen over meals, but because of their potentially sensitive nature, it may be best to set aside uninterrupted time where travelers are not distracted and can engage in the reflection process.

This is a good opportunity to help travelers sort through what it means for them to be in this space as a listener and observer. I’m a big fan of Dr. Anu Taranath’s book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, which provides ideas for people facilitating reflection and questions to potentially guide these conversations. Though written with students in mind, it is packed with lots of food for thought related to privilege, power, perspective, and awareness embedded in the travel experience.

Have Uncomfortable Conversations

The travel narrative has historically been one that is neatly tied up with a bow, but getting into the slow travel mindset requires a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations — conversations that could bring up difficult issues, surprising reactions, and no easy answers.

This doesn’t mean that every conversation will make everyone uncomfortable. But these conversations also don’t intentionally avoid topics that might be controversial or deal with difficult issues like the climate crisis, race, migration, and colonialism. 

To set the stage for such conversations throughout the travel experience, establish expectations early on. People need to feel like they can safely broach such topics, and that others will listen to and respect what they have to say, even if they are in disagreement. 

Ask Open-Ended Questions

So many people ask questions that imply judgment or center their own opinions and experiences. Or, they ask yes/no questions that close off further conversation.

Those interacting with travelers can lead by example by asking open-ended questions. “What” and “how” questions often nudge the door open for better conversations: “What is something you learned about…?” “How did this experience…?”

Another great way to encourage further reflection is to use “Tell me more...“ or “Tell me about…“

Listen, Don’t Just Hear

Listening is as important in a conversation as speaking. So many people hear just enough to start forming their next thought and statement in response that they don’t actually take the time to listen to what is being said.

The slow travel mindset requires actively listening to what others have to say, whether that is an Indigenous person sharing local knowledge, a guide providing context on a tour, a chef explaining the concept behind a meal, or other travelers sharing their observations about an experience. 

This is also true for guides or other service providers, who have answers at the ready should anyone ask the questions they anticipate. There are times when a quick answer is called for. But when it comes to that deeper, “slow” experience, offer total focus. Listen completely.

Sit With Silence

Because so many people are already forming the next thing they want to say, they rarely sit in silence. Slowing down in a very literal sense means there is time to pause, reflect, and formulate a thought before responding.

Also, keep in mind that it isn’t always appropriate to respond. Sometimes people have something to say, and it doesn’t require verbal reflection. That’s okay too. 

Silence is space, and space is part of creating the conditions for meaningful slow travel.

Prioritize Curiosity Over Agreement

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer. In fact, the world is filled with shades of gray. People may not agree with what they learn or hear. They may not agree with others’ opinions or how they interpret different situations. 

Integrating the slow mindset into the tourism model means accepting that not everyone has the same experience. It also means people need to understand how to hold more than one way of seeing the world and being okay with that.

Tour guides and service providers can model this behavior by engaging in these experiences themselves, and by listening to and showing curiosity about on-the-ground partners’ and travelers’ worldviews and stories.

Move Beyond Witness

One of the key problems with many experiences is that travelers are treated as passive participants. They’re talked at, told to read placards, and expected to listen. They are witnesses to the world around them. Yet, the most important parts of people’s lives is not what they observe or even what happens to them, but how they experience those moments.

This is why hands-on activities or deeper learning opportunities like citizen science can be such a powerful piece of a travel experience. These activities move travelers from passive participants to engaged global citizens in the world around them. This allows them to think about and remember events in a more layered, nuanced, and even tactile way. 

Encourage Personal Reflection

Every person comes to the travel experience with a unique perspective, and that means each person goes through a different journey throughout that experience. This rich diversity of perspectives can create dynamic conversations within a group setting, but some people may need or want to work through their thoughts on their own. This transformational process is a highly personal experience where each individual reflects upon and seeks to make sense of what they learn, observe, feel, and understand through the travel experience.

Encourage travelers to take some down time for this personal reflection. For some people, this might involve journaling (free writing or with guided prompts, such as those offered in The Transformational Travel Journal). For others, it involves meditation or taking a walk free from distractions.

Tour operators can suggest people take time to reflect before, during, and even after a travel experience. Destinations can do something similar by posting open-ended prompts for consideration on websites or at various sites travelers might visit.

Approach Experiences with Awe

One of the reasons people travel is because it’s different from what they know or experience on a day-to-day basis. That’s also why a lot of people do not travel. They do not want to be shaken out of their comfort zones.

But even for those who do seek that thrill of going somewhere new and doing something different, they often travel with preconceived notions about what they’ll encounter and how they’ll react. This is natural and aligned with their perspective that’s been shaped by countless internal and external factors and stimuli. 

Even after a few days in a place, people form expectations and may begin to lose the sense of wonder and curiosity they initially had. Encourage travelers to keep awe alive by walking into experiences, activities, and encounters without judgment. Street Wisdom offers a guide on how to do this when looking for creative inspiration, but even looking at the world for new cues — unusual patterns, accessibility — can shake up the way people approach the environment around them.

Build in Space for Spontaneity

The most memorable travel experiences often spring from unexpected moments — a conversation, a casual cup of coffee, a shared joke. These things can happen when intentional space for unintentional moments is built into a travel itinerary, yet so many itineraries are packed from sunup to sundown, which leaves no time for spontaneity. This is the manifestation of “slow travel” in a very real way, 

Everyone should be invited to slow down and let the world unfold around them without intention or expectation. Being open to what arises in those moments may be the most profound moments of a trip. In this way, an organized tour that supports the slow mindset is a vehicle for uncovering more meaningful traveler experiences.

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