Around the world, Instagram-friendly destinations are at their breaking point. In November, the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board introduced a campaign encouraging visitors to “tag responsibly,” using a geotag for the region rather than specific locations within the park. It was an attempt to reduce over-tourism the board says has been caused by Instagram. Meanwhile, in Australia, a national park has had to reinforce a five-foot fence to discourage visitors from climbing onto the unstable Wedding Cake Rock to snap a famous but dangerous shot. Locals in cities like Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona are protesting rapidly-rising rent driven by demand for Airbnbs and streets crowded with aspiring influencers.
With over one billion active monthly users, it’s clear that Instagram has the power to shape how we travel. According to a survey by Expedia, 30 percent of Americans are influenced or inspired by social media when booking a trip, and a destination’s photo potential is an important consideration. Average social media users are feeling the pressure to visit the same hotspots as their favourite influencers and replicate that sun-drenched, pastel aesthetic in return for validation in the form of likes and followers. For many travellers, the quest for the most Insta-friendly photo often wins out over exploring a city on their own terms.
To make matters worse, travel media, on Instagram and more generally, has traditionally been dominated by wealthy white people with little knowledge of the places and cultures they’re posting about. This results in misinformation about a country’s people and history, and disrespectful interactions passed off as ‘authentic’ experiences.
“I see so many travel Instagrammers do the same thing: post a beautiful picture with an amazing filter on the gorgeous background but nothing else. Then top it off with a useless life quote that has nothing to do with the country,” says Cuban-American content creator Marissa Daniela of @mimaincuba, who aims to share the reality of life in Cuba with her account’s 21k followers. The appeal of these kind of traditional travel accounts is no surprise; aspirational escapism is a huge part of Instagram’s success.
And yet, all is not lost. “We are seeing growing interest among travellers in responsible and sustainable travel,” says Rebekah Stewart, Communications & Outreach Manager at The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). CREST defines sustainable tourism as: “tourism that leads to the management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life-support systems.”
Millennials, in particular, are far more likely to be sustainably-minded than their older cohorts. Millennial travellers are “active, adventurous, connected and socially conscious and want to engage with places they care about; they want to give back,” according to Sustainable Travel International.
There’s also a new wave of influencers seeking to change the norms. Popular accounts like @unlikelyhikers and @blackgirlstraveltoo focus on highlighting the diversity of travellers around the world, sharing insider tips, and respecting the environment and indigenous cultures, to prove that Instagram can in fact be a positive influence on how we experience unfamiliar places. It’s no surprise that this focus on sustainability is driven by women, people of colour, queer people, and other groups that have historically been excluded from tourism.
“I grew very frustrated on the road seeing disrespectful travellers,” says Kiona, an influencer with 32.5k Instagram followers and a website called How Not To Travel Like a Basic Bitch, which she created in 2016. "It didn’t matter where I went, there were always people from the Global North who had no respect for nature, the culture, or local peoples and would completely disrupt ecosystems of a place.”
How Not To Travel Like a Basic Bitch has since developed into an educational site which is a platform for local voices and diverse travellers from all over the world, while Kiona shares her personal experiences on her Instagram account. Thanks to her academic background, including a Ph.D. in Nutrition, Kiona has a unique perspective on travel. “It guides my research about a place, who I deem as a source, what questions I ask, who I’m leaving out of the narrative, and the strategy of disseminating information.”
“My audience has the intelligence and appreciation for critical thought and methodological research,” Kiona says “A lot of what we already know is written from one perspective and very rarely does it uplift local voices, especially not voices of colour.”
Francesca Murray similarly aims to inspire her audience of 35k followers to seek out different experiences when they travel. She’s a Caribbean expert who started sharing her stories on her blog One Girl One World because she wanted to see more diversity in travel media. “My audience is interested in fresh destinations offering rich cultural experiences, not just hot spots where you can get the perfect Instagram shot,” she says. “I try my best to spark meaningful conversations.”
Murray started using Instagram as a tool to connect her blog to a larger audience. While she remains skeptical of it as a platform, she has seen an increased demand for creators that post more than a pretty picture. “Those who have something deeper to say are beginning to rise above the noise. The market may be saturated, but if you have something unique to say there will always be room for you.”
Since Wi-Fi started to become more readily available in Cuba in 2015, Cuban voices have also become increasingly visible on social media. Daniela uses her platform to broaden the perception of her country and its people. “I believe travellers have to be conscious about a place they travel to. Learn the history, learn the cultural norms, and be real and honest about them. Many times Cuban tourism focuses around being in a vintage theme park, with the old cars the old buildings and dancing salsa on the street. It’s far from that in the day-to-day lives of many on the island.”
For these influencers, Instagram’s potential lies in its ability to connect users from around the world who are interested in traveling in a responsible way. “I don’t think Instagram is evolving, but I do think social movements are being driven by social media,” Kiona says. “I have noticed that people are able to find others who have been asking the same questions.” Her focus is on education and connection on a personal level, rather than the callouts and buzzwords that the platform has become known for.
On her website, Kiona’s recommendations for travellers wanting to avoid “basic bitch behaviour” include acknowledging and learning about the Indigenous Peoples in the area you’re visiting and staying away from reductive ‘country counting.’
The practice of geotagging itself is up for debate. While some national parks and environmental advocates dissuade visitors from sharing the exact location their photo was taken, Kiona and other diversity-focused travellers argue that withholding the location on social media will only exclude people already marginalised by the travel industry. If visitors don’t feel comfortable geotagging a place, they should keep it off social media altogether.
Victoria Buitron, founder of @latinaswhohike, wrote about the way social media is blamed for irresponsible visitors behaviour on her blog A Traveling Translator. She sees Instagram as simply a new way for people to share their travels as they always have. “The mediums we use to disseminate information reflect how we act in the real world. I believe we can be responsible travellers, trail users and social media users.” Victoria writes that if you want to post about a place for likes, others should be able to visit it too, so they can learn how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. “Education, information and access to the outdoors is vital. Exclusion is not.”
To practice responsible travel on social media, CREST encourages users to always ask for permission before taking photos of individuals, especially minors, to stay on designated trails, and promote companies and destinations that align with your values.
Although diversity has improved over the past five years, there is still a long way to go in terms of who controls the narrative of travel. According to Francesca, “a lot of press trips, travel conferences and tourism campaigns are still overwhelmingly young, white and able-bodied.” The most popular accounts on Instagram continue to replicate this dynamic, posting gorgeous, filtered photos without contextualising the social or environmental factors behind the shot. Of course, traditional travel media and travel agencies also share the responsibility of showing a range of travellers and places in a responsible way. Whether in magazines, on TV or on Instagram, the way travel is represented has a tangible effect on destinations, who visits them and how those visitors interact with the place.
But the growing popularity of a new kind of travel influencer is proof that the pursuit of sustainable, responsible travel doesn’t have to be boring or unattainably expensive. In Cuba, for example, “It’s breaking down stereotypes of what the country is, or is not, and opening it to the world that it once was never apart of,” Marissa said. “And seeing it through that lens is much more interesting.”