About a year ago, I sat down in the corner of a cafe, waiting to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was one of those hipster cafes with exceptional plate presentation, conversations about different types of pour overs, a variety of plants all over the place, big windows filling the room with natural light and a record player with Lana Del Rey on the needle. I sat near two people in their early 20’s. As I waited for my friend to show, the group near me’s waitress brought out their food, neatly decorated with arugula and streaks of aioli. One person quietly uttered “Wow, this looks amazing,” as they began to pick up their breakfast sandwich.
“What are you doing?!” the other friend exclaimed.
“What do you mean? I’m eating my food.”
“Dude, the gram always eats first.”
As I heard that, I laughed, because it's actually quite clever. But I was definitely silently judging them as well. I wasn’t sure if they joking or not. It didn’t really seem like it. ‘Millennials…’ I thought. And then I got my own eggs benedict, glazed beautifully with hollandaise sauce and green onion... and proceeded to take my own picture which was promptly uploaded to my Instagram story.
The “if you didn’t take a photo of it, were you even there?” colloquialisms are usually used as ironic humour, but present an element of truth. Nowadays, Instagram comes first. We contrast the generation before us’ need for privacy and instead share basically everything: what we eat, what we see, what we do, etc. We are literally willing to risk, and sometimes experience, death for a cool photo. It plays an interesting role in our lives. It almost acts as a fluid, social resume. We flex the things we are doing to create an image of ourselves for others, which is constantly updating. This idea is even more notable when people travel.
Now, there are some pretty prototypical images that come to mind when people say ‘travel’; the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum, Bali beaches or the party islands of Thailand. People regularly crack open their Instagram to see amazing shots of these locations displaced throughout their feed. It becomes a part of the fantasy. The imagery stays transfixed in our minds. So naturally, if and when we end up going there, we want to recreate those images, but with ourselves in them. The common thread that once connected these destinations was the widespread agreement in the need to visit and marvel them. No doubt, their beauty is still something to marvel at, but the commonality nowadays reflects our need to show that we’ve been there instead of just being there. The photo is no longer a bi-product of the adventure. In many cases, it is the driver of it.
If you know me, you know that I just returned from a near 6 month backpacking adventure across Southeast Asia, visiting Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Japan. I was fortunate enough to be able to take time away from my job and explore parts of the world I had never seen before. When I left, I thought traveling would largely be a practice of mindfulness. I wasn’t sure if I should even bring my camera. But in reality, I found something quite different: a large population of people decided what to do while traveling based on the pictures they could take. It played a critical role in their trip. This isn’t necessarily a new idea, but it seems more prevalent than ever. For example, there is this one small temple in Eastern Bali called the Pura Lempuyang Luhur, otherwise known as the Gates of Heaven. It has gained massive popularity over the past few years due to incredible photos like this:
It is absolutely serene. It emits the exact feelings we wish a vacation would. Beauty, wonder, calmness, and a slick Instagram shot to boot. Although the photo is undoubtedly beautiful, it isn’t unique. Search #GatesofHeaven on Instagram and you’ll find thousands of photos just like it, usually with the same silhouette standing in contrast to the two massive stone blocks surrounding them. It all sits neatly in front of what appears to be a still, pristine lake, creating a mystical mirror effect. What people understandably fail to think about in these situations is the other side of the photo. How would they get there? How many other people would be there? How long would they have to wait? What would the actual experience be like? The depressing reality is this:
#1 - That “water” is actually a mirror, cleverly set up by a local Balinese person to create the illusion.
#2 - You have to pay a small donation of $1-$2 to snap the shot.
This man will hold your phone up to a small mirror and take your picture for a couple of dollars to create the above lake effect.
#3 - This location is roughly a two-hour drive from Denpasar, which is the starting off point for travelers entering Bali. This means that you’re likely driving for 4 hours round-trip to see this temple.
#4 - Once you arrive, even if you’re coming at the crack of dawn, there are hundreds more like you waiting to snap a photo. You’ll likely be waiting in line for at least 45 minutes, as each person has to go one at a time.
In total, you’ve essentially spent your whole day driving and standing in line to fake a photo and then share it with all of your friends and family back at home. And people will gladly do it over and over again, too. Talk about the opposite of mindfulness.
This isn’t uncommon. In almost every place I visited, there was some famous landmark popularized by an Instagram influencer that everybody in the hostel would eventually visit for a ‘gram shot. As a photographer myself, I was no better than any of my travel companions. At times I visited places just for photos and I regularly posted throughout my trip. It’s often times part of the backpack culture. It's something that you do without really questioning it. This is a fairly extreme example of the lengths some will go to share a photo on an app. Not everyone travels like this and just because you take a photo in a beautiful place doesn’t mean you’re egotistical or vain or superficial. There is much more context needed than that. But reflecting on my time traveling, I do wonder if some of my experiences could have been more authentically spent, instead of spending a full day around a bunch of other tourists doing something almost completely unrelated to the countries people, culture, or history, for others that are 14,000 km away. It made me wonder; how did we get to this point? How did a photo sharing app come to influence the way we travel the world and what has it changed?
#1 The Growth of Instagram and its Influence
Instagram has experienced tremendous growth over the past seven years since they were acquired by Facebook. They were purchased for $1 billion in 2012 and since then, valuations have ballooned to around $100 billion. They have 1 billion active users every month and of those active users, 500 million use Instagram stories every day. Users spend an average of 27 minutes on the app per day and since this average includes those who use the app very infrequently, it isn’t an accurate representation of how much a committed Instagrammer is on the app. All of this to say that the pervasiveness and influence of Instagram is at an all-time high. Marketers turn to Instagram to spend their digital dollars on influencers who’ve built their following through fantastical imagery. The growth of travel pages are massive. We see much more imagery then ever before. For those at the latter end of the millennial generation and part of the Gen Z generation, sharing parts of your life not only become an important element of belonging, but socializing as well. Therefore, in relation to tourism and travel, the social validation of the trip becomes more important than the actual experience itself.
#2 The Increase of Travel in the Millennial & Gen Z Population
In most cases, millennials and their younger counterparts place more value on experiences than on material possessions. This, paired with the global drop in oil prices which resulted in lower airfare, have enabled a higher number of younger people to travel the world. These younger people use Instagram more often and travel differently than the generations before them, increasing the impact overall.
#3 How People Travel a City
In order to understand how much of an impact Instagram and the internet have on traveling, it's important to breakdown how people approach traveling a city or country when they get there. That way, you can see the steps that led them towards the decisions they make on what to do and where to go. In my experience, I went about navigating a city or country in one of the following ways:
· Participate in an event or tour that my hostel hosted
· Connect with other travelers along the way and use recommendations via Word-of-Mouth
· Search for lists or travel blogs online with places to see or visit
· Lastly, in rare circumstances, I was able to speak to locals about their own recommendations
This is important to know because the majority of travelers don’t have the opportunity to travel like I did, and therefore their approach will be more limited or different altogether. They will likely plan their trip completely ahead of time, leaving little room to accomodate recommendations and relying mostly on online information. People who plan ahead are also usually exposed to fewer travellers who would normally give them advice or share their experiences. Due to the shorter nature of their trip (likely less than a month) and level of planning, they may not be around people for long enough to gather word-of-mouth recommendations. Much of the things I did resulted from WOM recommendations I received months prior, from people who had visited places I was GOING to instead of speaking to people where I already was. The point being that the root of information for a majority of travelers' decisions is the internet. And what are they looking for on the internet? Usually, its places that check off two boxes; something beautiful, and a place where they can take a picture (Instagrammable locations). A lot of the time, people go somewhere strictly for the photo, which wasn’t common ten years ago.
#4 Information Abundance and Centralization of Destinations
We are now facing a crisis in the form of analysis paralysis. We have so much information that much of the time we end up doing nothing instead of making a decision because we are so overwhelmed with data. Travelling is similar. Exploring areas randomly can be perceived as a waste of time and researching a variety of options can seem overwhelming, so we turn to other forms of inspiration, often in the form of lists, to help us. Drawing inspiration from Instagram on where to travel inherently centralizes the number of options most consumers will place in their consideration set. This centralization has a cost to the people and the environmental health of an area. It creates a situation in which tourists all become aware of and visit the same sites, usually overcrowding and environmentally degrading an area.
Take Maya Beach in Thailand, for example. Maya Beach is a beautiful beach on a small island off of Koh Phi Phi. Much of Leondardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” was filmed there. The beach became such a hotspot that at its peak in 2016, it would amass around 5000 visitors per day. The coral and marine life in the area experienced such severe damage that the Thai government had to step in and completely close off the beach so they could rebuild the ecosystem. These stories are ubiquitous: Komodo island in Indonesia now charging $1000 for entrance onto their island, Angkor Wat closing part of their grounds down due to wear and tear from tourists, locals paying heavily inflated rent due to the high demand of AirBNB in Spain and France, the messed up economics of tourist areas, etc. Plus, being around a million other tourists just plain sucks.
Tourists crowding the lakes of Angkor Wat at sunrise to get a photo of the ancient temple.
#5 Overexposure and Expectations
Instagram simultaneously achieves two counterintuitive ideas. It raises our expectations while also making travel feel more commonplace. We view a photo in its most beautiful light. We see one perspective. So by the time we arrive, we project those high standards onto an area and often can’t help but be disappointed. We are also being overexposed to travel in general by relentlessly being shown images of amazing and stunning landscapes. Instead of communicating scarcity and exclusivity, it becomes another thing that there seems to be too much of. It doesn't produce the same sense of wonder. The more people who visit an area, the more universal and banal the experience, effectively devaluing it overall. This is an equation for disappointment on some level. Think about it; if you wanted to share a travel story with your friends, are you more likely to share a unique story about that time you visited a mafia owned casino at the top of a mountain in southern Cambodia (true story) or a story about going to the top of the Eiffel tower (much less cool true story)?
Soooooo… what do we do?
There is no way that we can prevent the endless wave of technology that will inevitably consume us. All we can do is ride the wave, baby. But, what we can do is dictate the pervasiveness of those technologies. One of my friends recently introduced this interesting idea into his life. When he does an activity that he deems valuable: i.e. traveling, spending time with friends, etc., he will bring along a disposable camera. He can’t check the quality of the photo, he can’t upload it to Instagram, he can’t share it immediately. He has to wait until his camera is full and until he can develop the film. It's a way of being more present, while still acknowledging the value in photos, nostalgia, and memories. I like that. Striking a balance between mindfulness and capturing a moment is so important. It can be incredibly fickle, but we can be better with being present around the ones we love by implementing boundaries and upholding them. In regards to travel, don’t shy away from the internet, but also don’t be afraid to explore and connect with people outside of that list you looked at. Most of my favourite memories from my trip came from the people I met and the weird activities we found or got up to on our own, not from visiting a spot where I got to take a picture. We can be our own greatest resource.
I’m not sure what will happen with tourism in the future. I’m sure it will fall into some cycle. Places will get too popular, they will become overpopulated, there will be some regulation or intervention, less people will go there, regulations change, and the cycle begins again. New places will emerge. We will be forced to find more beautiful and interesting places. Maybe the idea of tourism and travel may become de-popularized for a period of time. Who knows? All I know is that we find more meaningful experiences and relationships when we are present. And when Instagram functions as the driver for our adventures, that's an extremely hard task to achieve.