How Instagram is changing the way we travel

Instagram isn’t just changing the way we travel, it’s shaping the destinations themselves

By James Draven
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:52 BST
Man taking a selfie in front of a lake
Destinations are increasingly being promoted as 'instagrammable'
Photograph by Getty Images

In October 2018, a husband and wife fell to their deaths from an unfenced overlook in Yosemite National Park, just a month after a man died at an 800ft waterfall in the same park. In July 2018, a US tourist fell around 60ft from a whale-watching spot in Sydney, only six weeks after a man in his 30s fell from the same ledge. All of these deaths occurred, reportedly, while taking selfies. There are many more examples of accidental deaths while trying to capture shots for social media feeds.

Since it launched in October 2010, Instagram has transformed the way many of us travel. National Geographic photographer Dan Westergren shows me a stunning photo of Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River, just outside Page, Arizona. A lone wanderer is framed romantically against the backdrop. Dan then zooms out to reveal a queue of Instagrammers lined up along the cliff waiting to take the exact same picture.

“Five years ago, you could take a short walk from the parking lot and have this amazing scene almost to yourself, with perhaps 100 daily visitors in summer,” says Dan. “Now, thanks to its popularity on Instagram, there are an estimated 10,000 visitors a day. Before June 2018, there wasn’t a guardrail between visitors and the 700ft drop. But even after the railing was put up, a 14-year-old girl fell to her death in December 2018.”

Trolltunga, a rock formation that juts into thin air 2,300ft above Norway’s Lake Ringedalsvatnet, used to be an obscure destination too, but now Instagram is awash with images of it, and it’s become a major tourist attraction.

The three-hour hike up Roys Peak in Wanaka, New Zealand is also rewarded with a breathtaking scenic lookout — once you’ve got to the front of the 40-minute queue of Instagrammers.

Similar tales abound from around the globe, raising concerns that increased footfall on these wild routes is damaging the landscape.

A 2018 poll by holiday park operator Away Resorts suggested that as many as 30% of us have visited a location just to take an Instagram photo, with over half of this group aged 25-34. A survey of 1,000 British adults, conducted last year by sports retailer Decathlon suggested that 37% of 18-35-year-olds seek jobs offering travel opportunities, partially as a cost-effective way of boosting their Instagram feeds.

Destinations are increasingly being promoted using the neologistic verb ‘instagrammable’ — with marketing campaigns frequently touting the most instagrammable cafes, restaurants, road trips, forests. Key to all this is the growing army of social media figures who’ve attained the — often lucrative — status of ‘influencer’, using their high profile to boost the appeal of certain destinations.

“I use influencers to speak to the consumers directly,” says Jo Thomas, owner/director of Click Travel Marketing & PR. “Every destination client I represent has a social media strategy. It’s vital because Instagram posts are becoming an important part of travellers’ research process.”

As destinations are increasingly being promoted with campaigns touting the most Instagrammable attractions, influencers are increasingly able to monetise their posts through the inspiration they spark. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, however, is an ongoing debate.


Take shots that stand out from the crowd
Digital strategy consultant, Sue Llewellyn says: “Have a look at @insta_repeat to see what everyone else is doing — and then do something different! Also try putting something positive back into places you visit.”

Stay safe
“Is it worth risking your life for an extreme shot that countless others have already made? Don’t do it. In any case, though, when you’re taking selfies, look behind you!” says National Geographic photographer Dan Westergren.

Tread lightly
Sue Llewellyn: “Think carefully before marching into beautiful places and snapping away. Take steps to offset your carbon footprint. Always take your rubbish with you; don’t pick flowers or collect souvenirs, leave wildlife alone; and leave places as you found them — unspoilt for the next generation.”


Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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