Using Instagram to book, plan and share our travels feels like second nature in the digital age, but what happens when it goes too far? Has capturing the perfect 'Gram become more important than the holiday itself? We explore the good, the bad and the ugly side of Insta-travel.
words by Kerrie Morgan
IMAGES | TUMBLR
“Put down your camera and look at the view through your own eyes” – Grandma Shona, World Traveller, Age 91.
Last year my husband and I took a trip to Bali for my best friend’s wedding. I was excited to visit Bali, mostly because of what I had seen on Instagram: picturesque vistas, an abundance of horizon pools and the overall vibe of calmness and zen. I was also looking forward to finding out whether we could work remotely from there, with nothing but our laptops and free WiFi – like “all” the people I’d seen on social media.
Maybe I sound naïve. We all know that Instagram mostly serves as a highlight reel, rather than authentic documentation of day-to-day life, but it was hard to ignore the hashtags and brightly filtered images in the lead up to our trip. Previously when I have travelled, I’ve spent hours poring over the Lonely Planet guidebook, using a highlighter pen to mark accommodation, cafes and must-see sights, usually based on my budget and areas that are generally safe and straightforward to get to. But perhaps now that I have the whole world at my fingertips and every scrap of information condensed into the tiny digital brick I carry in my pocket, I have become lazy. Thanks to Instagram I’d quickly found the best spots in Bali for smoothie bowls, rope swings and sunset cocktails… Or had I? Perhaps I’d simply found the best looking spots? And on that note – did some places just look that fun or aesthetically pleasing because of the beaming bikini-clad influencer posing on the sun-lounger, swinging across the jungle or jumping off the boat in the foreground?
After deciding the area around our first hotel in Bali was probably “not the Instagram part”, we headed to the picturesque – and apparently highly Instagrammable – island of Nusa Lembongan. It didn’t take long to realise that many of the images we’d seen of this place had been highly edited and cropped. Sure, it was stunning and drinking a cocktail or Bintang on a swing in a beachfront bar was pretty lush, but it was hard to ignore the just-out-of-shot rubbish piles (many of them burning), murky, rough water and huge crowds of snap-happy tourists at the many viewpoints, clifftops and beaches on the island. I understand it’s not up to the people of Instagram to capture the truth with every image, but the contrast between the pristine paradise we’d seen on the ‘Gram and reality, was quite confronting.
You could argue this has always been the case with travel and exploring: a much raved about place is likely to become popular, sometimes inducing a dark side that is not often discussed, much less photographed. In fact, this very concept was the focus of Alex Garland’s cult novel, The Beach. The difference between now and previous, less-digital, times is that these days people are travelling to, or visiting, specific places not because they’ve read something intriguing or heard a must-be-seen-to-be-believed tale of beauty and culture, but because they’ve seen an aesthetically pleasing image on social media and want to capture the same shot for themselves. Just look at the iconic pink ‘selfie’ wall in L.A, the Las Vegas sign, or Trolltunga in Norway. These places now command huge visitor numbers each year and a queue that budding Instagrammers are happy to wait in for hours, just to get the money shot. In the case of Trolltunga, people’s safety can be at risk, with up to 40 rescue missions taking place each year to save struggling climbers. Because of the long wait time at the top, to get the perfect shot for the ‘Gram, climbers are not making their way back down the challenging trail until after dark, causing grave concern amongst locals. And there’s no sign of it slowing down: pre-2010, a mere 800 people a year hiked up to the picturesque Trolltunga rock; that number has since swelled to over 80,000 per year. The swimming pigs of Big Major Cay in the Bahamas are another such tourist attraction that has seen visitor numbers skyrocket in the last few years, thanks to social media. The huge number of visitors is now being blamed for the death of several pigs, with locals expressing concern that visitors are not only feeding the pigs but giving them beer and rum, and even trying to ride them. While it was once a little known phenomenon, the hashtag #swimmingpigs has now been used on over 86,000 Instagram posts.
There’s no denying that around the world, social media has changed the way we travel – but it’s not all bad. From booking hotel rooms and translating menu items, to finding the best places to eat, drink and party – there isn’t an element of travel planning that can’t be conducted from the apps on your smartphone. Want to complain about poor service on an airline? Head to Twitter. Need hotel reviews? Trip Advisor. A place to upload your beach club pics? Instagram. Wherever we go, our phones go – rating, sharing and hashtagging every hostel, breakfast spot, beach and cocktail along the way. And it’s working to the advantage of hotel chains and tourism boards in every corner of the globe. In 2015, Lake Wanaka Tourism enlisted the help of several international travel influencers, including Chris Burkard (@chrisburkard), Emilie Ristevski (@helloemilie) and Ben Ashby of Folk Magazine (@folkmagazine), to boost visitor numbers to the picturesque region. The strategy worked wonders. In 2016, data showed that Wanaka and Mackenzie were the fastest tourism growth areas in the country with an increase of 14% in guest nights.
It's not just the tourism industry that is profiting from places made popular by social media. Thanks to the connection that apps like Instagram offer, the world has opened up to a vast number of people who now make their living by posting and photographing their way around the globe. Promoting everything from hotel rooms to travel products, travel influencers can command thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of dollars per post. Influencers such as Lauren Bullen (@gypsea_lust) from Australia and her partner Jack Morris (@doyoutravel) from the UK have 4.8 million Instagram followers between them and earn over six figures a year by travelling the world, snapping glamorous photographs of their wild adventures and visits to the world’s most luxe locations. Their Instagram posts have a way of making you want to jump on the next flight to a clifftop hotel in the Greek islands – which is exactly what they’re supposed to do.
As human beings, we are eternally curious. We will continue to travel and seek out new (or Instagram-recommended) experiences, probably for the rest of time – and like it or not, we’ll probably always have our smartphones in our pockets while we do so.
Here are a few things to consider before you go on your next holiday:
Try to spend at least part of your trip digital-free. Perhaps leave your phone in your room instead of taking it to the pool or beach; or put it in a pocket in your bag or backpack, to make it less easily accessible.
If you’re using your phone as your camera, hold off on posting your photos until after your holiday – give yourself time to enjoy where you are and look back through your photos before sharing them with the world.
Consider the environment, culture and local people before snapping a photo or selfie. In some places around the world, photography is prohibited or limited and there are certain rules you should follow before snapping away.
Always ask before you shoot. Even if you don’t speak the local language, some hand gesturing with your phone or camera and a friendly smile is the least you should offer before taking someone’s photo, especially if you’re planning to post it on social media.
Yes, most restaurants, cafes and bars around the world now offer free WiFi – but this doesn’t mean you have to use it! Put your phone away and talk – to your travel companion, other travellers, the locals, the wait staff, anyone! You never know what you might find out about the area.
Turn back time with a travel journal. Photos and videos are the best way to accurately record where you’ve been, but nothing beats a handwritten journal – fill yours with ticket stubs, postcards, sketches, notes and Polaroid pics.
Having lived in London and travelled extensively, Kerrie can now be found in the bohemian sanctuary she shares with her husband in Grey Lynn, where she works as a freelance writer, sub-editor and (sometimes!) interior stylist. Pop culture, travel and the environment are topics close to Kerrie’s heart.
When she’s not hunting out treasures in local thrift stores and vintage shops, Kerrie can be found trying her hand at everything from trail running to sewing and designing sparkly creations for festival goers.
Follow Kerrie’s work on instagram @kerriemorgancreative