Taking pictures while traveling isn’t unusual. Many people love to remember beautiful landscapes, interesting architecture, or unique strangers they meet on their travels. There’s nothing wrong with snapping a photo of the mountain you just hiked or the street guitarist. However, things take a turn for the worst when people start traveling and taking photos specifically for social media.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with using social media and posting about your travels, but pictures posted on social media have a lot more impact than personal photos of a vacation. The rise of social media comes with a lot of detrimental impacts to the tourism industry. It goes a lot deeper than just taking the spontaneity out of travel. Social media culture when traveling has greatly impacted the trashing of beaches and the influx of nuclear disaster zones to become a tourist destination. All of this goes to say, the impact that social media has on the tourism industry is extremely detrimental.
How Social Media Devastates Local Communities
A 2019 article by Insider highlighted 20 cities that have been ruined by tourism. This list is full of small towns such as Kyoto, Japan, which has been hit by a wave of tourists looking for photos with Geishas. There have even been incidents of tourists aggressively chasing Geishas and breaking into private property. The problem has gotten so bad that the local government has introduced a new law that fines tourists $92 for taking pictures of private property or Geishas.
Tourists have caused massive damage to local attractions like Maya Bay in Thailand, known as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. After rising to fame following the hit movie “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Maya Bay quickly took off on social media and began having over 5,000 people visit per day. Due to the constant overcrowding and overall lack of empathy for the ecosystem, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation has indefinitely closed the beach to tourists. According to The Guardian, it’s been estimated that over 80% of the coral reef at the beach has been devastated.
One of the seven wonders of the modern world, Machu Picchu, located in Peru, has also been the victim of over-tourism. Tourism in Peru has boomed, from 800,000 people in 2000 to just over 4.4 million in 2018. With the rise of tourism in the area, the government has decided to make the trip to Machu Picchu more convenient for tourists by placing an international airport near the historical site. Not only are tonnes of Ancient Incan cities being bulldozed, but the effects the international airport will have on the surrounding historical sites are endless due to increased tourism, low-flying planes, and the depletion of water supply.
How Geo-Tagging Enables Social Media Travelers
Geo-tagging is a concept in which you tag a specific location onto your social media posts that can range from tagging what country you’re in all the way to the specific coordinates of your location. Various people (especially those looking for unique spots to post on their Instagram feeds) will use this feature to find places to travel to. What began as a tool to help others see where you are has since enabled over tourism and the destruction of many natural sites.
People started geotagging private property, which has encouraged others to visit these locations as if they were tourist destinations. For example, a sunflower farm in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada had to close their doors to visitors after over 7,000 people showed up in one day after the farm went viral. The photo opportunity had to be shut down by the police because of the number of people who showed up and the farmers were concerned with how that amount of visitors may have devastated their crops. However, closing their doors hasn’t stopped people from trying to come take pictures at their farm and the farm has put up multiple no trespassing signs to warn visitors.
One of the most detrimental effects of geotagging is the overtourism of smaller, lesser known outdoor spots. Delta Lake in Jackson Hole, Wyoming used to be a popular spot for avid hikers and locals. However, once Instagram influencers began geotagging the exact location, the amount of people taking the 9-mile hike up to the spot has grown tremendously. Because the trail up to Delta Lake is a social trail (meaning that it is not an official trail that is maintained by the national park system) the growth of new hikers has caused erosion, making it a far more difficult and dangerous hike than it used to be. Not only has it caused harm to the trail, but more people are getting hurt while doing the hike because they are unprepared for how vigorous it actually is.
Leave No Trace, a Colorado-based advocacy group, developed a social media guide for outdoor ethics where they discuss how people may consider geotagging a general area if they’re even going to consider posting a geotag at all. For example, geotag Jackson Hole instead of Delta Lake. This way, people will research Jackson Hole entirely and learn more about the park as a whole while leaving the secret spots for those who can actually take care of it.
Taking Empathy Out of Travel
While the intersection where social media and tourism meet has spread a lot of information about the best places to eat in different countries or historical sites you need to visit, it has also created hotspot tourist destinations out of disaster zones.
On April 26, 1986, the Cheronybl power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine exploded killing 31 people immediately, but the UN has predicted that about 4,000 people in total may die with connections to the disaster due to radiation. After the HBO miniseries Cheronybl brought the accident into the eyes of a newer generation, many social media influencers began traveling to the region to post it on social media. Some influencers remained somber through their posts and discussed their feelings at the sight of the accident, while others used the remains of the town as a prop for their Instagram shoot. For many people, the trend of visiting Cheronybl to post on social media felt disingenuous or downright disrespectful to the people who died in the disaster.
In another example, while over 1 million people died at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, many people go there to take “cute” pictures of themselves balancing on the railroad tracks. The trend became so popular that in 2019, The Auschwitz Museum tweeted asking visitors to remember the lives of the victims who died at the concentration camp instead of using the museum as a backdrop for their photoshoots.
Although social media can be a great tool for connecting with others across the globe through shared experiences, it’s important to be mindful of the effects your posts could have. Before you post about your travels, remember who it’s influencing and what might happen to that community as a result.
Want to learn more?
Thailand bay made famous by ‘The Beach’ closed indefinitely – The Guardian
Machu Picchu: Impact of Tourism – Barcelona Field Studies Center
Is Geotagging Ruining Natural Wonders? Some Say Yes – New York Times
Emerald Teton gem is no longer hidden – Jackson Hole News & Guide
New Social Media Guidance – Leave No Trace
There’s Nothing Wrong With Posing for Photos at Chernobyl – The Atlantic