Doing It For The ‘Gram | How The Rise Of Instagram Has Changed Travel

Social media is changing the ground-level reality of the places we travel to, and the people who live there

Illustration: Olivia Jorgensen.

It was your typical, tropical beach scene. Palm-fringed shore, scattered rocks, blissed-out swimmers bobbing about in the shallows, and a queue of twitchy travellers hoping their turn on the rope-swing would result in the perfect sunset shot for Instagram. Bemused locals looked on, except for the man taking tips for holding the swing. His grin was as big as the one the picture-takers were feigning mid-leap.

The internet had told me this was the best beach to visit in this part of Sri Lanka. A secret spot, it gushed, in words and hashtags, with the photos to match. But while it was certainly picturesque I couldn’t get my head past the length of the line at the rope-swing; by what was missing from those dreamy pictures. Was David Annand right when he claimed “Instagram is ruining travel”, writing: “A curious new breed of traveller is popping up at every great wonder of the world, spoiling the view for the rest of us…”

“We’ve turned the camera around, focusing not out, but in… turning the world’s great vistas into mere backdrops for the self”

And: “We’ve turned the camera around, focusing not out, but in…turning the world’s great vistas into mere backdrops for the self.”

I wouldn’t go as far as saying the queue ruined my trip to the beach that day, but it did make it feel more like a generic tourist experience, such as visiting the Eiffel Tower, than I’d expected. Who travels to a seemingly remote beach to be a crowd?

“We’ve turned the camera around, focusing not out, but in…” || Photo: Jakob Owens

But such is the transformational power of Instagram on global travel. The social media platform, which was founded in 2010, now boasts over a billion users, 500 million of which are active on it every day. Alongside food and fashion, travel images make up some of its most popular content; influencers can whip up massive followings, which they can earn big fees from.

Top accounts such as the surf photographer Chris Burkard and Jack Morris of doyoutravel command over two million followers each, while Jack and his girlfriend Lauren Bullin, who as gypsea_lust also has two million followers, say they charge £7000 for each sponsored post.

Moaning about Instagram images not matching real life is a gripe, not to mention meme, as old as the platform itself and in many ways not that different from writing to Thomas Cook in the 1980s to complain that the hotel didn’t look like the one in the brochure. Though there is also something new at play here, in terms of the speed and reach that place-related images can travel on Instagram and the actual real life-impact this can have on the spots themselves, the locals that live there, and even the way we as both travellers and Instagram users see the world.

“Instagram is ruining travel”

Sean Smith is an academic at the University of Hong Kong, who specialises in contemporary tourism. He tells me: “Before social media the only avenues to hear about a new place were through tourism promotion or travel writing or if you happened to have friends or family who had gone to the destination and who would then show you their photo albums until you got bored.”

“But now, through Instagram, when something gets traction it gets circulated through the network so quickly and on such a great scale. There is a propensity to popularise certain places that has no precedent.”

Pictured: The iconic Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. Photo: Jeremy Bishop

There are undoubtedly winners in all this. Not least the influencers themselves, but I often wonder who the losers are. Places with sad stories, such as Auschwitz which don’t present the most ‘likeable’ backdrop. Nightclubs, as it’s still hard to take good photos in the dark. Fun countries to visit whose buildings are quite ugly but neither in a kitsch or brutalist sense. And of course, it’s also possible for places to win at Instagram but lose in other ways.

In the last few months the Guardian has reported on hour-long selfie lines at Roys Peak in Lake Wanaka where the fragile ecosystem is buckling under the strain of social media fame, while in the US there are major problems from Instagram-induced overcrowding at several National Parks. Horseshoe Bend “hundreds of miles from any large city” which was once “as lonely as it was beautiful” used to be a local picnic spot, with a few thousand visitors a year. It then became “#instagramfamous” with 750,000 visitors in 2015; the figures for 2018 were expected to reach two million.

“People don’t come here for solitude. They are looking for that iconic photo”

“Social media is the number one driver,” the region’s park manager Maschelle Zia told the Guardian. “People don’t come here for solitude. They are looking for that iconic photo.” At a deeper level there’s a debate to be had on whether it actually matters why people come to a beauty spot, be that to pimp their social feed or to disconnect and gaze at nature. If it enriches their life and gets them active and outdoors, then that has to be a positive doesn’t it? As long as people aren’t taking stupidly dangerous selfies or harming the environment of course, which isn’t always possible when you have huge numbers of visitors involved.

When that is the case, what can be done? At some scenic spots such as Muir Woods, also mentioned in the Guardian article, which is famed for its redwoods, authorities have dramatically limited the number of cars that can park there and banned street parking, which has significantly reduced visitor flow at busy times, and encouraged more people to come off-peak. Measures many other popular US nature spots are looking to implement. While the non-profit Leave No Trace has a list of social media guidelines for visitors, which includes avoiding geo-tagging and being vague about your exact location to limit “significant impact to particular places.”

Pictured: Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, popular with Instagrammers. Photo: Jeff Sheldon

In Iceland, a country whose ethereal photogenic landscape has sent visitor numbers through the roof in the years since Instagram has existed, the tourist authorities have run targeted campaigns to steer people towards the less-popular but properly stunning west and north of the country. So they can experience the country’s wild and rugged remoteness rather than clustering around Reykjavik, where even visitors are complaining it’s too busy, never mind the locals.

But overcrowding and degradation of nature isn’t the only concern with Instagram and travel. For Sean Smith, the big worry is the reductive way in which the images can portray people living in the Global South, that is the world’s less developed countries. A problem peculiar to the photo-sharing platform, which no longer exists in travel writing today, but does hark back to the travel writers of the 19th century who used their storytelling to reaffirm colonial beliefs about the west’s superiority over everyone else.

“There is a problem having your girlfriend pretend to be topless in front of a bunch of Palawan villagers”

Over Skype he told me: “Since the 1990s it’s become increasingly difficult to publish things that might have been perceived as upholding the privilege of the white western world. And with editorial bodies, such as National Geographic, you had direct avenues for public criticism against these institutions [if they did]. But that doesn’t exist at all with Instagram. There are no real gatekeepers… virtually anybody can create a compelling image and achieve circulation on Instagram. They didn’t need to come to it through a professional avenue, which in many ways is great, but there can be a lack of reflexivity.”

“And it’s a popularity contest. There are not really many people who are able to say anything that would have negative ramifications for these Instagram users who have a following of 2 million. They’re not going to hear people saying: ‘Hey we shouldn’t post this,’ … and they may not have been exposed to the idea that there is a problem having your girlfriend pretend to be topless in front of a bunch of Palawan villagers…”

Pictured: Deleted image from @MuradOsmann, Instagram page with 4.2 million followers

Smith is referring to a post by Murad Osmann (@muradosmann), who has one of the most popular travel accounts, with 4.2 million followers. His photos involve him being led into a supposedly authentic local scene by his girlfriend, who wears the traditional dress. In one particular image (which got over 241k likes) she is made to seem topless, while the local villagers form a slightly bewildered semi-circle around her. In another shot, taken in New Delhi, a local rickshaw driver opens the door for her as if he’s a chauffeur, and Murad includes the caption: “You wouldn’t believe how many people were actually surrounding us during that shot.”

Writing about the picture in the Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Smith says: “Beyond rendering the locals as disingenuously servile – no driver disembarks his rickshaw for a passenger… what is most compelling about this image is the need to clear it of local inhabitants… in order to make the landscape available for the tourist’s taking.”

“The big worry is the reductive way in which the images can portray people living in the Global South”

Describing a picture taken in the Maldives by Traveler’s Little Treasures, he says: “[It] shows a single white woman sitting on a boardwalk leading out to huts stilted over a turquoise sea…in photographing tropical destinations the images must be carefully staged to sustain the illusion of emptiness.” Going on to observe wryly: “One can imagine the local staff of the Maldives resort waiting patiently for the photograph to be taken, before continuing down the boardwalk to change the bedding in the huts.”

You never see the local residents in these pictures, and not just by those at the mega-influencer end of the spectrum, as these patterns filter down to users who aren’t getting endorsements or paid for sponsored posts; yet are still drawn to ape those who are, to get maximum likes on their own feed. The tropical beaches are essentially stripped of any local identity and instead used as a playful backdrop for the traveller’s big adventure.

Pictured: Fishermen on stilts, off the beach in Sri Lanka

As Smith says: “Rather than depicting these destinations as… spaces in which a tourist is a guest, such performances on Instagram, innocent and certainly aesthetic as they appear, depict them as realms for the tourist’s taking, especially when tourists visit a destination in the Global South, where their wealth and passport privilege far exceed that of most locals.”

In Sri Lanka I did feel uncomfortable taking pictures with a smart phone that I knew cost more than many local people would earn in a year. And conflicted about the kind of photos I should take and post. Don’t include locals and risk using their home as merely a backdrop to my own story or include them and risk using them as a prop and patronising them. The most obvious solution I guess is to always ask permission, but won’t people always say yes to a visitor from a country that’s richer than theirs, when tourism is such a well-sold development strategy.

On some Sri Lankan beaches locals have gotten around this by charging for photos of the traditional fisherman, who catch fish by balancing precariously on a stick for hours on end. It’s an impressive watch and makes for a great photo but I found an online thread moaning about the fact the fishermen have stopped fishing as they can make far more money in a day having their pictures taken; the posing was deemed inauthentic. But who wouldn’t make that choice in the fisherman’s position?

“People don’t come here for solitude. They are looking for that iconic photo.”

I ask Smith if there’s a way to take photos or travel even to the Global South without abusing our privilege? “I don’t think the solution is to stop travelling or taking pictures,” he says. “My own fieldwork in Myanmar found that people are sensitive to how tourism changes a destination, in terms of the environment and culture, but they still want to go and have these exchanges. So, there is probably a way to appeal to tourists’ better nature when it comes to posting reflexively on social media.”

“When you’re just taking an image it’s difficult to show nuance but in [the accompanying] text it’s easier to show recognition that you are there as somebody more privileged.”

There’s no doubt Instagram is changing travel, for good and bad, in ways we’re only just beginning to understand, but it’s also starting a conversation and making us think about the impact our visits to different places can have. Last month tourist authorities in Austria launched an anti-Instagram campaign called ‘Unhashtag Vienna’ to encourage visitors to ditch their screens and enjoy the city in the moment rather than constantly sizing it up for social media. It’s easy to be cynical about their motives, and we could all probably do with using our phones a little less on holiday, but maybe it’s also possible to use Instagram and travel a little more thoughtfully while doing so.

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