Instagram: travel friend or foe?

Shortly before Christmas I read an article in the Guardian titled Instacrammed: the big fib at the heart of New Zealand picture-perfect peaks. Intrigued, after all it was covering two subjects I’m very much interested in, I read on. The article describes how social media has given certain hikes unprecedented popularity almost overnight, and the effects that that has had on the walks themselves. It includes the rather amusing picture of someone taking their perfect photo, contrasted to the line of people behind them queuing to get pretty much the same shot. It made me consider both my own travel experiences in New Zealand, and my use of the Instagram app.

Is New Zealand Instacrammed?

In my experience, yes and no. New Zealand is a beautiful country and it’s difficult to go anywhere without wanting to take photos. However, it’s also a country with a relatively low population, so if you go slightly off the tourist route then you are likely to find yourself crowd free. In these moments, when you have a beach to yourself or you’ve completed a hike only passing one other person, it’s difficult to complain about it being crammed. However, there are certain beauty spots which are swarming with people, often taken to that sight by their tour bus (guilty as charged!). I was actually really disappointed that the hike referred to in the article was closed when we were in the area. It was one I had been looking forward to doing as according to the guide book, the views were spectacular. However, having read the article I was actually glad that we weren’t able to do it as I know a queue of people at the top would have really irritated me and definitely coloured my experience.

Lake Rotoiti

However, there were plenty of other moments on our trip where we experienced the Instacramming and joke-worthy queues so that people could take their perfect shot. Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park will always stay in my mind for that exact reason. Whilst a few of us were taking note of the huge eels which had congregated under the pier, and the atmospheric mountains and mist which surrounded the lake, the majority of the group had formed an orderly queue along the pier. Why? To take it in turns to jump in the air at the end, pretending you were the only one in this magical spot. A couple of brave souls decided to jump in to the glacial water – their first question on getting out was “did you get the shot?”. Another memory I’d rather forget was the four hours that it took one group of backpackers to debate over what caption they should share with their image as it needed to be perfect (unfortunately we were sitting very close to them on the bus so overheard it all!).

I came home with thousands of photos that I’d taken – some selfies, some posed shots and an awful lot of landscapes. I’ve shared some of them online; on this blog and on social media. I’m certainly not guilt-free of taking photos just for Instagram, but I do wonder how many people question it to some extent, and for how many it has just become natural.

How does Instagram shape your travel experience?

For some, like those mentioned above, Instagram has clearly shaped their travel experience. They’ve considered their actions and the attention they’ve paid to certain places based around how it will look online. They’re not alone. The content we see on social media has a huge influence over how we lead our lives, whether we care to admit it or not. From the choices we make, to the experiences we want to emulate, a lot of it stems from what we’ve seen online. Apparently more than 40% of those of us under 33 prioritise “Instagrammability” when choosing their next holiday spot. So it’s little wonder that places are becoming over-crowded as we all head to the same destinations to take the same photos.

I’ve certainly seen images on Instagram that have made me consider destinations in a new way. Places that were never on my bucket list but now are, or even spots I’ll try my best to visit inspired by a photo I’ve seen. I’m not alone – instead of flicking through travel brochures we’re looking at ‘more authentic’ images online and imagining visiting those destinations. However, I don’t think I’d ever plan an entire trip around Instagram, or even the photos I want to take (which I know that some people do). I have been caught out though. One of the reasons I was attracted by the pretty village of Portmeirion was because of the lovely colours and all the attention I had seen it get from other travel bloggers, when actually it made it onto my list of disappointing places to visit. This can open the door to overcrowding and environmental degradation and is causing serious concern. There are more and more places considering adding tourist tariffs and restricting numbers (although cruise ships also have to take some blame…).

There’s also the more dangerous side of “doing things for the ‘gram” which is being reported on more frequently as people take extreme risks with their lives for the perfect photo. Some of those who have ignored safety barriers and warnings, climbed structures, or simply slipped from a viewpoint have paid a tragic cost for their risk taking. People who will go to any lengths to create the image they want, or recreate an experience they have seen elsewhere.

So is Instagram a travel friend or foe? I’m not sure it was ever a question I was going to be able to answer in just one post. It can definitely be detrimental to travel – either for the number of people it brings to an area (although this is beneficial to the local economy) and have a negative impact on people’s travel experiences, even if they haven’t yet realised. However, it can also be a source of inspiration – either to physically see the places you’ve seen online, or to avoid them entirely and find somewhere further off the beaten track.

What do you think? Has social media shaped the way you travel?

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