We’ve all been there. No really we have. You swipe and you swipe and you swipe again. And it’s all pretty similar; all an array of the same place, filtered, secluded, individual, idyllic. You wanted to go. And who wouldn’t? Instagram is filled with travel stories.
The platform is now a huge factor in the travel industry. Instagram has over one billion users and 40% of those under 33 consider “Instagramabilty a factor when travelling. In fact one small village in New Zealand saw a 14% increase in tourism after wooing Instagram travel influencers (the highest the country has seen). And on the surface of it, this shouldn’t be that troubling. As a visual storytelling platform, it makes entire sense that it would be hugely popular as a means of communicating and inspiring travel. But there are problems within the Instagram travel boom.
Destinations like Barcelona and Venice have a long standing record of being harmed by over-tourism; pushing up rent prices and generally making these cities less habitable and harder and more expensive to live in. In 2010 800 people visited Norway’s Trolltunga “Troll’s Tongue” viewpoint. But 80,000 people visited in 2016, in part due to Instagram; whilst the Greek island of Santorini has had to cap the number of day visitors in recent years due to a major increase of tourists. Similarly, the Philippines Boracay Island had to close in 2018 for restoration due to the influx of Instagram, selfie snapping tourists that the area simply wasn’t equipped for. Over tourism results in negative effects both in the short term- such as littering and environmental damage- and longer term, including impacting on rent prices and sustainability. Instagram tourists throw up other problems too with tales of individuals dying to get selfies and controversy surrounding taking distasteful photos in sensitive locations such as Chernobyl or Auschwitz, promoting accusations of “disaster tourism”. The site has also spawned a whole market tailored to it with cafes and hotels created specifically as Instagramablle destinations.
One of the major criticisms that gets levelled at Instagram travel influencers and tourists is that they depict places in an unrealistic fashion. The site is awash with photos of significant landmarks like the Trevi Fountain or the Taj Mahal depicted in near or complete isolation. And whilst that’s beautiful and makes for a tremendous shot; it simply isn’t the case most of the time or for most of us. As someone who’s seen their fair share of beautiful tourist landmarks; I can hardly think of one where I wasn’t largely surrounded by at least a medium crowd. The times where I’ve been able to see them in a more secluded fashion have generally involved getting up incredibly early or (more likely) having stayed up all night. Which is certainly part of the Instagram Travel Influencer game; stories of getting up at 5am to grab that perfect picture, or alternatively deferring to photoshop to edit the images. Consequently, there is potential to be disappointed when you find yourself at such a place and aren’t quite able to grab the perfect moment of self reflection.
This reflects many of the major problems of the platform more broadly. It’s a place where people go to share a heavily manicured version of their lives. Everything on Instagram is edited, heightened to look that bit better. Honesty isn’t its greatest currency. The impact of this is well documented with affiliations to low self esteem, body image and mental health. We only ever show an aspiration, an edited highlight on there. You’re unlikely to see a photo of an exhaustingly long queue in immigration (without air con) or someone sad and lonely at 2am in a hotel room.
And this is the crux of the problem with Instagram’s version of travel; it re-iterates the idea that travel should be perfect and an entirely positive experience.
It feeds into a narrative that travel is an inherently informative, personally formative experience, where wonder, beauty and personal fulfilment is just the turn of a corner or a snapshot away. And nowhere is this more true than in regard to travelling alone; an experience we revere and fetishise.
There’s good reason why we do that. Travel- and particularly solo travel- is a significant experience. But it isn’t all perfection. There are times when it’s scary, boring even and- dare I say it- lonely. That’s not to say it isn’t a positive thing. But it’s entirely possible to have a wonderful travel experience that also includes some pretty low and hard moments. I’ve had solo travel experiences where I’ve got off the plane at the end utterly thrilled I went alone and wouldn’t have changed that for the world and ones where I was definitely glad to be back in what was familiar.
It’s about hordes of people, of unfamiliar sites and sounds, of being in somewhere entirely new. Travel isn’t about perfection. It’s about difference or challenge. A lot of my favourite solo travel moments have been far from perfect (and not in the least bit Instagram worthy)- the time I stranded myself in the Sicilian country side on a Sunday and spent hours sat in a random cab office waiting for a taxi back to the city speaking a mix of English and my bad Italian to the man who ran it; the time I went to the Atacama desert to see the stars but didn’t check the lunar calendar so there were no star tours. So I walked alone into the sand dunes at night to find, they were right. You couldn’t see the stars.
Neither of these would work on Instagram. But they do work as a story. Is that what travel is about? Maybe. Or then again, maybe not. It might be about seeing something particular; or running away from something particular or perhaps just about having a few picture perfect days alone. Travel isn’t about just one thing. And it’s not necessarily about grabbing the perfect picture of that. It’s entirely down to you. Whether it’s geotagged or not.