We’ve just completed our seventh day on the Alpe-Adria Trail. Over the past week, my husband and I have walked more than 110 kilometers (nearly 70 miles) up steep climbs, down into mountain valleys, through rocky gorges, and alongside a range of wildlife. My body has passed the point of soreness and fatigue — aching thighs, screaming knees, bruised hips. I’ve reached that comfortable cadence of rising in the morning, consuming as many calories and as much caffeine as possible, strapping on my backpack, and hitting the trail for another six to eight hours before reaching the day’s destination, a calorie-heavy dinner, and a good night’s rest before doing it all again.
The Alpe-Adria Trail is a 750-kilometer, 43-stage footpath starting at the base of Grossglockner (Austria’s highest peak) and running through the mountains of Carinthia, Slovenia, and northern Italy before reaching Muggia, Italy, on the Adriatic coast. This past summer, we hiked the first 22 stages — the entire section in Austria, crossing into Slovenia on the final day. This particular trail was unveiled in 2012 at ITB Berlin, and though long-distance trails are not a new concept, recognition of trail tourism as a growing tourism sector is.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are thousands of long-distance trails all around the world. They follow classic pilgrimage paths, trade routes, and mountain ridges. They wander through small towns, big cities, and deep into the backcountry. Some require tent camping, some lead to a series of huts serving as rudimentary sleeping quarters, and some allow travelers to eat and rest in fully furnished accommodations. Recently, an increasing number of destinations have started to realize the tourism potential of combining existing pathways to create long-distance corridors crossing vast portions of a country and even tying several countries together.
On the seventh evening of our hike, I write the following in my journal: “Some days it is tempting to ask ‘why bother?’ Why am I hiking this exceptionally long distance if all I’m doing is walking on a difficult path? And then a hike like today’s hike comes along that is truly exceptional and your spirits are raised and you remember that this is why you sign up for and agree to challenging activities like this one.”
Over a bread-and-jam breakfast in Obervellach, Austria, I hold a broken conversation in German with Rita, the owner of the guesthouse we’ve stayed in. She asks me how far we’ll be walking and for how long (approximately 370 kilometers/230 miles over the course of 22 days). I ask her if she likes to hike or ski in the area, and she laughs. “No,” she says, “someone has to stay here and run the guesthouse.”
By stringing together towns, significant sites, and natural interests, these developed trails lead people out of heavily visited areas through lesser-known or emerging destinations and into situations that would be nearly impossible to replicate otherwise. By staying at privately owned accommodations, shopping in neighborhood markets, and dining in family-run restaurants, travelers inject money into communities at a hyper-local level, dispersing tourism dollars far beyond a few (often urban) hotspots for which a region or country is popularly known. Without the Alpe-Adria Trail, we never would have encountered the Granatium, where we learned about the area’s garnet mining history and even had a chance to mine our own garnets before moving on. We wouldn’t have had a private picnic lunch sitting next to Falkstein Castle or spent a relaxing hour wandering through a bonsai garden in Treffling without our packs on.
A long-distance trail is also an opportunity for a destination to tell a story: a story about people, history, and culture. For us, the Alpe-Adria Trail is a story about spending a night in Alexanderhütte, a dairy farm where the sweet-sour smell of unpasteurized milk snuck in through the floorboards. It’s the story of watching the final World Cup game huddled around the only television in a mountain hut while eating a plate of Kärntner Nudeln. It’s the story of standing at Gerlizen Alpe (1,909 meters) at the end of day 19, with skies so clear we could almost see Grossglockner and the Julian Alps we would cross into Slovenia three days later simply by turning our heads. These stories take shape when people slow down, tread lightly, and observe their surroundings instead of rushing from one site to another, ticking off a long list of “must-see” attractions.
In many ways, trail tourism is the manifestation of the famous T.S. Eliot quote: “The journey, not the destination, matters.” Some travelers may tackle these trails a few days at a time, returning to the destination to hike more of what they started. Others, like us, hike for longer durations, sometimes completing an entire trail in a single end-to-end hike. Regardless, as an increasing number of travelers seek out transformational experiences, this slow version of adventure travel is an opportunity for destinations to promote existing footpaths or consider working with surrounding regions to develop long-distance trails as a form of sustainable development.
Continuing my journal entry for day seven, I describe the day’s trek — a walk around a serene lake, fields of brilliantly colored wildflowers, a picnic lunch next to the rocky Rabischschlucht Gorge, and stepping along a narrow metal walkway through the jaw-dropping Groppensteinschlucht Gorge. And then I finish with this thought: “We walked 10+ miles today, but these are the days we walk for. These are the stories we’ll tell. This is why we walk.”