If you’ve been following my blog or my Instagram, you’ll know that I’ve been traveling a bit. Traveling solo has taught me much about how I like to travel but most importantly, how I don’t enjoy so much.
One of the things that I’ve found myself guilty of doing time and time again is making my visits and experiences “worthy” of an Instagram post. From not-so-jokingly asking friends to take a “blogger picture” of me – usually involving me doing ridiculous poses that make it look wonderfully spontaneous – to recruiting “victim photographers” when I spot a nice background. Now, I’ve realised I left out of the picture the most important element of traveling: getting to know the host cultures.
Several media outlets and magazines have commented on the influence social media has acquired when traveling (you can read Forbe’s take, Business Insider‘s or National Geographic). Fellow travelers and tourists, myself included, want to get the money shot to prove they are going to all the idyllic locations influencers talk about and avoid FOMO.
However, this summer I encountered a form of tourism that I’d only seen in a few places beforehand – #InstaTourism – and it equally frightened and made me admire the power of social media. Now, I’ve written about social media and connectedness this before (you can read it here and here!), but I’d never considered it in the context of travel. Capturing places, events, and experiences while on vacation is as old as time – impressionist painters traveled all around the world to capture landscapes, and adventurers, explorers, and colonisers have used photography as a method to record their findings and establish colonial narratives in the lands they conquered (more on this another time, but National Geographic wrote a fantastic self-reflecting piece on this).
Closer to our heart, tourists have taken pictures at the Eiffel Tower, or at the Little Mermaid, the Spanish Steps, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall and so on for as long as mass-produced cameras and travel have been available. Why has social media changed this?
The Illusion of Adventure.
Put simply, we want to be as cool as our friends, our acquaintances or arch enemies from school. Add that to the boom of #instafamous influencers, and it’s very easy to find an aesthetic that will make your life seem like a luxurious wonderland.
The result of this explosive combination is the illusion of a secret adventure; enjoying sunsets at the beach with nobody else around, walking around ruins on your own or watching the sunrise from a volcano. Yet, it’s all a farce.
We see queues of backpackers and travelers, phone in hand, waiting to take the same picture at the same monument. We see couples waiting hours until there is nobody else in the shot. When we do manage to take the shot, we’re no longer smiling brightly at the camera like we used to; we’re looking away or in the middle of an adventure. As if we didn’t know the picture was being taken – as if we were too busy having fun to think about sharing it with our friends. But then we do.
Writers and experts far more qualified than I have already contested the impact social media has on our self-esteem and our psyche. However, we’re only starting to notice the impact it has on our actions now.
Finding New Places
Any travel blogger, tourist, or wannabe traveler has heard of Kelingking Beach. We’ve seen the wonderful T-rex look-alike peninsula from Bali online – and potentially dreamed of being there and enjoying its remoteness. When I arrived at Nusa Penida, I was itching to visit. As we arrived, the grandiosity of the place took my breath away. The water was so blue, and the peninsula was so well defined, and we could see manta rays swimming at the bottom.
And then we saw “The Others”. The other tourists, who, excited like us, had driven all the way to this remote island. What made me the saddest was that the great majority of them simply enjoyed the view for a few minutes, lined up to take a picture, and then left. Very few of them made it all the way down to the beach.
Similarly, the small Kiwi town of Wanaka has found a relatively new landmark in its Wanaka tree. Traditionally a town famed for skiing and adventure sports, known as Queenstown’s little sister, groups of tourists flock to this lonely tree bowing to the lake. The tree has no historical nor biological significance other than winning Dennis Rademacher the New Zealand Geopgraphic Landscape Photo of the Year in 2014. Ever since Instagrammers and photographers have come here to attempt to capture the same image.
Objectively speaking, social media has helped uncover new places in well-known destinations. It challenges the traveler to seek out small details and get off the beaten path. My worry, however, is what happens when we become obsessed with ticking a picture off of our list and forget about living. Would I have enjoyed Kelingking Beach a lot more if I had made it down to the actual beach? Probably.
The Money Shot
While traveling, there were a few days I sought refuge in a good ol’ smack-you-in-the-face comfortable, all-inclusive resort. Now, I know, I know this is not how “we are meant to travel”, but sue me, it was very nice. My first night there I found myself talking to the manager when he was showing me around. We arrived at the cutest hang-out place in the resort: a converted classic VW van, perfect for reading, napping or watching the tides come and go.
He asked me what else I would do with the feature, and without a hesitation, the words blurted out of my mouth.
“You need a hashtag.”
And there it is. Social Media’s long fingers. Every Airbnb, hotel, hostel, or guesthouse that wants to make it anywhere on the top lists needs an “Instagrammable” feature. Even if the rest of the venue is utter crap, we need to be able to make it look beautiful. It needs to feel and look luxurious.
To me, social media has, in some way, removed the fun from backpacking. Now we backpack and travel on a budget, seeking the adventures that different countries have ready for us, but we also need to look like we have an unlimited amount of money.
I declare myself guilty. Guilty of looking for walls and details that’ll look lovely on Instagram. Guilty of posing in temples and other sacred places. I’m also guilty of being glued to my phone and making sure I looked great in pictures.
But sometimes I was so busy making it look I was having fun, that I completely forgot to enjoy myself. To me, that’s the greatest danger of #InstaTourism.
What do you think? Have you ever caught yourself going somewhere just for the ‘gram? Let me know in the comments or DM on Instagram.