Americans love to travel. Confusingly, we don’t tend always to use up all of our vacation time. On average, Americans get 10 days of vacation time, and only about 55% of the country even use all of it. Yet despite that statistic, American’s make billions of domestic trips and millions of international trips each year.
It’s no secret that tourism is a trillion-dollar industry — in 2019, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that tourism made up around 11% of the world’s GDP. That means one in ten jobs worldwide are estimated to be in the tourism sector. So should you stop visiting other countries? No! Instead, it would help if you re-evaluated how you see the world.
Before diving into the heart of the matter, it needs to be said that becoming a digital nomad, a slow traveler, or something close to it isn’t attainable for everyone. However, with a little creativity, many Americans can achieve the life of the slow nomad, slow traveler, or digital nomad — a practice that could lead to a much more sustainable travel industry overall.
Your One-Off Vacations Are Ruining the Planet
Between 2009 and 2013, world tourism emissions accounted for about 8% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of that is polluted by (and in) high-income countries. When you consider just how large the tourism industry is, that’s become a frightening amount of emissions.
One of the main culprits? Air travel. All forms of transport in the travel sector are pretty carbon-intensive. After all, most people don’t bike to their destinations, do they? Air travel, in particular, though, is astonishingly bad for the planet. Consider, for a moment, that an economy class return flight from London to New York produces the same emissions as the yearly life of someone in Ghana. If an American takes two domestic trips a year and one international trip and flies the entire time, the environmental costs are catastrophic.
That’s just flights. Obviously, not every American even fly to their vacation destination. However, the rise in travel bloggers, travel influencers, and the “FOMO/YOLO” culture we have brewing certainly isn’t encouraging ‘Merica to take fewer vacations. Instead, we have apps like Weekend — a helpful little tool designed to allow you to book the perfect weekend getaway, flight included.
None of these statistics include the other ramifications of short-term travel. An often overlooked disastrous aspect of the travel industry includes the impact made by travel-sized bottles of beauty products. Gone are the days when we could travel with full-sized products in our carryons. The mini-bottle reigns supreme during travel these days — and truthfully, the beauty industry in general. Considering only something like 9% of plastics are recycled, that doesn’t bode well for the planet.
This isn’t a doom and gloom piece about how we all need to stay home forever. So what are the solutions? Luckily, there are many variants on travel, but one solution seems made for a post-pandemic world: slow travel.
Slow Travel is the Sustainable Future of a Ravaged Industry
The idea of traveling slowly is a balm for anyone who has ever felt exhausted upon ending a whirlwind vacation. Nix taking your week vacation and trying to stuff as many destinations in as possible — anyone else guilty of that? I know I’m not alone here. Instead, visit one destination for a longer period of time, immerse yourself in the culture, the food, the way of life. There isn’t a specific rule of thumb to slow travel; rather, it’s a mindset. It’s about a concept that American’s struggle with innate: slowing down.
There are several ways one can engage in slow travel. Make the travel part of the experience and take a train to a location. Enjoy the scenery. Flying to a new city? Stay there for the duration of your vacation and really get to know the place. For Amerian who have no plans to embrace nomadism, slow travel could include simply having one city on an itinerary rather than, say, five cities. Doing so will cut down on that horrific transportation element.
However, the real joys and opportunities to slow travel open where digital nomadism comes into play. If you have the option to work remotely, why not incorporate that into your travel life?
Being a Slow Nomad
For those not in the know, a digital nomad is a person who earns money entirely online and uses this as a way to work remotely, from anywhere in the world. Most work in IT or a creative field. Digital nomads are perfectly poised for the slow travel life, with their ability to work from anywhere with a wifi signal.
However, if we broaden the term to simply nomad, the slow travel life can include a wider variety of careers. A nomad is anyone who doesn’t live in one fixed place. The list can include seasonal workers, traveling nurses, a hostel or hotel worker, teachers (especially teaching English abroad), Au Pairs, instructors, even bartenders. Seriously, I spent a year of my life once as a traveling bartender and waitress — it’s possible.
There is a habit among digital nomads that involves seeing as many places as possible in as short a time as possible. After all, we all have wanderlust, and when we realize we’re free, we tend to take off without looking back. This leads to burnout among many. It also leads to the desecration of the planet we’re dreaming of seeing. Sure, you can take a flight every week to a new location and see 52 cities in 52 weeks.
You could also embrace the slow travel life. Be a slow nomad. There are so many pros to being a nomad. However, there are just as many cons. One way to save the planet and mitigate the cons includes staying in one place longer. Lonely? Take the time to make friends where you’re already at — which is much easier if you spend more than a week there.
Rather than spend a few weeks in one place, spend a few months there. Embracing the slow travel way of life is also embracing the local culture. Kathleen Wong makes some good points about digital nomadism just being another form of colonialism. A great way to avoid that is to slow down. Stay at local apartments. Eat local food. Embrace the local culture by educating yourself on it. Make friends with the people who live in the places you’re posting about on Instagram.
Prior to writing this article, I genuinely thought I had made the term “slow nomad” up. Ha! I have since discovered others who think like this, which shows you that it could very well be the future of travel. If you want to travel almost anywhere, you need to quarantine at the time of this writing. Slow travel is basically the only (ethical) option. There is little way to tell when “normal” travel will be back on the agenda.
As it turns out, becoming a slow nomad is not only the remedy for the planet. It’s also the remedy to your wanderlust.