From a ‘meager’ 421 million passengers in 1974 to more than 4 billion in 2017, the exponential surge in air travel over the past 50 years is a symptom of an industry that’s become infinitely more accessible to people across the globe.
But just as the travel industry has opened up and become a boon for the masses, pressing questions around its sustainability have started looming large. Consider for a moment that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has forecast the total number of passengers flying by plane annually to reach 8.2 billion in 2037. This has huge implications for the future of travel, bearing in mind that CO2 emissions of air travel are 20.5 times higher than train, per kilometer.
With airlines now flying to more cities than ever, the options for intercontinental (and even domestic) flying resembles something of a travel buffet. Convenience has become a priority for passengers and airlines alike, which means the fastest routes with the fewest stops. If we conflate convenience with fast travel, then on the other end of the spectrum lies slow, sustainable travel. With the convenience seeming to be the status quo, is there a case to be made for slow, sustainable travel? We think so. In this article we’re going to make the case for slow travel and give you four reasons why sustainability should matter to every traveler.
A good starting point for understanding the concept of sustainable travel lies in the three pillars on which it’s based:
- The ecological pillar: e.g. conserving the natural environment of the destination you’re visiting
- The economic pillar: e.g. supporting local businesses there
- The social pillar: e.g. supporting cultural projects there
Now that we’ve provided a base understanding of what sustainable travel entails, let’s look at why sustainability should matter to you – and how slow travel can make you more sustainable travel.
If you thought that the environmental impact from planes was benign, then I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken. Plane travel is, by far, the worst culprit when it comes to travel CO2 emissions, especially over longer distances. The reason that air travel hasn’t garnered a bad rap is because a) it hasn’t registered as a major CO2 emissions contributor as yet and b) it’s the de facto mode of intercontinental transport, with no other alternative. Short-haul flights, a cornerstone of fast travel, aren’t exempt from this either. According to the Guardian, a flight from London to Rome emits approximately 234kg3 of CO2. This is all to say, the environmental consequences of fast travel could be dire for future generations.
Secondly, if we consider that sustainable travel means sowing back into the local communities where we travel, then we’d argue that slow travel gives us a chance to meaningfully make a difference as we pass through. Spending more time in one area is a chance to engage with the locals on issues that affect them in their day-to-day lives, facilitating a rich cultural exchange that you wouldn’t normally get if you were whisked in and out of a destination. By spending more time in a community, you also have the opportunity to support local business and give back in an economic sense, playing a small part in sustaining the businesses.
Third, if sustainable means slow, then slow means freedom. And as we’ve already said, that means more time and fewer schedules. A crucial part of getting comfortable with slow travel is being selective in what you do, and understanding that you may have to come back for certain attractions. Even though the world is rapidly evolving, things will always (well, almost always) be there for you to see on future trips.
Finally, sustainable (and by extension, slow) travel creates more wholesome travel experiences. You gain a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the country when you take a moment to slow down. One of my enduring experiences was a 14-hour train ride along the western coast of India. Departing at midnight, I awoke to the lush, tropical rice paddies and the sound of the vendors selling masala tea. Was it the most comfortable experience? Certainly not five stars, sure. But it was a travel experience that I’ll always cherish – and a slow travel one at that.
As sustainability becomes a more pressing issue in the years to come, it’s incumbent on us as travelers to be cognizant of the effects that our travel has on the environment. One of the tools you can use to track your flight emissions is the MyClimate website. This site allows you to offset your emissions by donating to various social projects.
We hope that these four points have given you pause for thought when it comes to slow travel and how it can help you be a more sustainable traveler. A common mantra which most travelers abide by is “leave only footprints, take only pictures.” We couldn’t agree more.
Do you have any tips for slow travel? Share them with us!