Slow Travel in the USA

Trends / Sustainability
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Mar 29, 2022
After slowing down during the pandemic, American travelers are returning with a desire
to experience travel at a slower pace, rather than running around checking off a bucket list of sightseeing to‑do items.1 This new travel mindset, “slow travel,” is about taking the time to appreciate local culture and nature, and fomenting a deeper personal connection to a place, with sustainability in mind. The concept of slow travel isn’t new; think about Anthony Bourdain’s popular travel TV shows, in which he skips the landmarks and immerses himself in authentic customs and cuisine. Already, many tour operators are designing to meet this new demand2; luxury lifestyle magazine Kinfolk’s latest book release focuses on sparse yet immersive itineraries.3 Throughout the pandemic, at Getty Images, popular visuals amongst our travel customers generally reflected American travel behavior, and we are already seeing how popular visuals are reflecting the slow travel mentality.
Appreciation for local culture
Though it’s tempting to assume that travel will snap back to pre‑pandemic normal as soon as restrictions lift, a survey by Travel Pulse counters that 71% of Americans adopted a new travel habit during the pandemic, and over half realized that they are now content to travel more locally or even to enjoy a vacation at home.4 Travel as we knew it changed, but it never completely stopped; instead, people learned to consider local or even day trips as worthy travel experiences, and popular visuals are beginning to reflect this.

Right before the pandemic, international travel was at an all‑time high—in 2018, a record 1.4 billion international trips were taken globally—but now, international travel is Americans’ lowest travel priority, Visual GPS found. Accordingly, at Getty Images, popular visuals showing destinations like Mexico, the Caribbean, Japan, and especially Paris declined significantly from 2019 to 2021, whereas visuals showing all corners of the US, from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast increased. In 2021, customer searches for “road trip,” “car wash,” and “tailgate” all rose, and the rise in “electric car” by +111% indicates that nascent sustainable technologies are becoming part of the American road tradition. In this way, the rise in local escapes has also placed more visual emphasis on the journey itself, rather than simply the destination.

Concurrently, however, visuals showing landmarks, culture, and architecture declined, too, which implies that we tend to think of culture as “other” cultures, when in fact, American culture is so widely varied. You wouldn’t know it from looking at popular visuals: most show flags, football, and cowboy hats, and most cuisine pictured tends to be burgers, steakhouse fare, or ice cream. Visual GPS found that discovering new cultures is still just as important as before the pandemic to 3 in 5 Americans, meaning that even visuals showing local travel should capture the unique cultural experience travelers will have there. Part of the slow travel ethos is discovering culture in one’s own backyard, which calls for a more varied visualization of American culture. 
Outdoor escapes 
With travel options limited by pandemic restrictions, many American travelers rediscovered nature and outdoor activities in their own backyards, reflected in visual culture by the rise of "gorpcore" as a fashion trend.5 For example, despite temporary closures, 15 US National Parks set new visitation records in 2020, and there was an even steeper increase in the range of activities visitors chose to do once there. In May 2021, Grand Teton saw 30% more visitors than May 2019, and trail use grew 70%, camping increased 93%, and backcountry camping increased 117%.6 At Getty Images, amongst visuals popular with our travel customers, nature declined overall—but visuals showing nature in the US rose. Similarly, visuals showing outdoor pursuits was the same, but those in the US rose +81%. While popular travel visuals used to rely heavily on immediately recognizable landmarks, the rise in small towns and nature and decline in big capital cities has meant that outdoor escapes place more visual emphasis on the experience that people have in a place, rather than simply symbolizing the destination, which is what slow travel is all about.
Mindful tourism for all budgets
Travelers across all budgets are now more value‑driven, and want their travel to make a positive impact on the communities they visit. For example, the New York Times’ influential “52 Places” travel feature for 2022 focuses on smaller, more rural locations where travelers can avoid over‑tourism and help the destination recover from the pandemic.7 Visual GPS confirms that 67% of Americans want their travel choices to support economic recovery, and feel that shopping small can make their money go a long way. Though small business visuals increased +73% from 2019 to 2021, most focus on remote work and only 11% show retail, which is a missed opportunity for drawing in mindful travelers.

Even luxury travel is becoming defined more by values and personal transformation. In popular travel industry visuals, luxury experiences still tend to be represented by cliches such as champagne, bathrobes, service, and the quality of the interior space, while visuals showing sustainable luxury make up only 1%. Unfortunately, many eco‑friendly technologies are currently only available to those with higher budgets. Cost remains the leading barrier to practicing sustainability for most Americans, but over 77% of travelers with luxury budgets say that it’s important that travel brands demonstrate their commitment to the environment and other social causes. Considering that eco‑conscious, well‑off Millennials are expected to drive the return of luxury travel, sustainability will be an important facet of luxury going forward.

It's no secret that the pandemic exacerbated income inequality in the US,8 and while luxury travelers have even more to spend, there will be a larger part of the population looking for affordable getaways. However, budget travel options are seldom seen in popular visuals. Bus and train travel declined since 2019, no doubt due to Covid safety concerns, but Visual GPS found that climate‑ and budget‑conscious young people, in particular, are ready to get back on board. The beauty of slow travel as a concept is that it is available to anyone with any budget, and that is part of its broadening appeal.
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