When I visited Marrakech last month, there was one place I knew I would visit. I had spotted the azure walls and towering cacti of the Majorelle Gardens on Instagram, and it shot to the top of my to-see list. On arrival it certainly lived up to expectations but instead of soaking up the beauty and tranquility, I spent the majority of my time trying to take pictures while dodging selfie sticks, iPads and people staging elaborate photo shoots – not exactly the zen-inducing experience I had imagined. It’s hardly surprising though, because in 2018, if you didn’t Instagram it, did it even happen?
In the seven years since Instagram launched it has completely altered the way we travel. Cheap flights and accommodation have opened up the world to millennials in a way our parents could only dream of. However, whereas once we might have flicked through a travel brochure or searched deals online, now, thanks to the geotagging function on Instagram, we are able to discover beautiful destinations, cool hotels and restaurant recommendations via social media. In fact, according to travel company Topdeck, 18% of 18-30-year-olds book holidays directly based on what they see on Instagram, and the travel industry has definitely noticed.
"It's not uncommon for our sales team to hear 'I saw it on Instagram' while taking a booking," Louis Sheridan from hotel bookers Mr and Mrs Smith told me. "When scrolling through [Instagram] it can feel as though everyone you know is summering on the Côte d'Azur. This means that even subconsciously people are following travel trends as a result of Instagram." Subsequently, he says, it’s impacting the way hotels around the world are marketing themselves. "Hotels are going the extra mile for Instagram. Whether it's witty blackboards, artsy place-settings or making sure there are towels on loungers, hotels recognise the importance of being Instagrammable." There’s even a resort in the Maldives where those fully committed to the ‘gram can hire their very own ‘Instagram Butler’ (yes, really), who will show you the most photogenic spots on the island and give advice on how to capture them.
For people planning holidays or longer travelling trips, Instagram can alert you to places that, in the pre-smartphone age, you might never have known about. Take Jess Last and Charlie Wild, a couple from London who quit their marketing jobs and embarked on a mission to see the world based on recommendations via their Instagram account, The Travel Project. They found huge value in using the platform as a tool to gain personal recommendations instead of following guidebooks or online articles. "We are able to reach out to likeminded travel enthusiasts and local creatives around the world, tapping into their local knowledge," Jess tells me. "This has opened up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to adventuring and searching for the lesser known spots."
However, on the flip side, it can feel like our time spent travelling has become one big photo shoot driven by social media. Whereas travel was once all about exploration and enjoying the moment, with Instagram it can feel like we are working our way through a photogenic checklist of locations, thinking about nothing but getting the shot. It begs the question: Are you really enjoying the moment if you’re also worrying about taking photos? For bloggers, influencers and photographers who use the platform as their main source of income, it's understandable that significant time in beautiful places is spent shooting content. However, in this time of‘ 'personal brands', even those with small follower counts feel a pressure to show they are having a really good time. "I do it partly because I want people to know that I’m having a great time. I hate to admit it but when people tell me they’re jealous of my photos I know I’ve done a good job of documenting my trip," Vicky, a 27-year-old teacher from London, confesses.
While sharing photos of your travels is nothing new (my parents still like to show me their slides from a 1988 trip to India), the way we share images on social media instantly and to an audience of potential thousands, is. Instagram provides immediate gratification and approval which is highly addictive due to the hit of dopamine, the pleasure chemical, it sends to your brain – something which soon wears off and leaves you wanting more. In fact, a study of 1,400 young people found that Instagram is the worst social media platform for mental wellbeing and impacts negatively on sleep quality, body image and FOMO, along with bullying, feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Beyond the potential implications for our mental health, Instagram has allowed travel to become homogenised. In the same way that people have started to look the same (we can blame the Kardashians) and style their houses identically, it appears many of us just want to go to the same places and take the same pictures. You’re likely to have seen these Instagrammable destinations pop up again and again. Some, like the Maldives or the Amalfi Coast, have always been popular, but places like the Bahamas’ Pig Island and Norway's Trolltunga, which were once hidden gems, have now become tourist traps.
There’s an even darker side to all of this, a problem much bigger than Instagram fuelling our narcissistic tendencies. It’s the impact that we’re having on the environment. There are a growing number of places that can no longer handle the footfall produced by being ‘Instagram famous’. You only have to google ‘Maldives Rubbish Island’ to see the problem caused by the ever-increasing number of tourists visiting one of the most Instagrammable places on our planet. There are similar tales all over the world, from Machu Picchu in Peru to Koh Khai islands in Thailand, where visitor numbers are now being capped to protect the environment. Sunset in Santorini has become so popular that the town's mayor has put a cap on day trip visitors, limiting the number to just 8,000 (down from 18,000 in 2016) in a bid to beat overcrowding. As is so often the case with these types of issues, it’s the local people who lose out. In Santorini, soaring rents and consumer prices have affected islanders financially and the tourism boom has put severe strain on the infrastructure and increased socioeconomic tensions.
Eco-travel expert Sarah Reid says she has countless tales of how Instagram can have a negative effect on the environment. “I often see tourists offering food to wild animals in an effort to lure them into the frame of a selfie, or worse, supporting the business of animal trafficking by paying to pose with a captive wild animal in an effort to show off to their friends on social media. I’ve also seen plenty of tourists ignore warnings to keep off ancient monuments in order to score an ultra-likeable shot.”
It doesn’t need to be that way though, and Reid is eager to point out that we can visit these places (and get our photos) without causing damage or disrespect. “Before taking photos anywhere, it's important to educate yourself on local culture and customs. Is there a certain way you should dress or conduct yourself in photos? If you're unsure, always ask a local before you snap – no selfie is worth compromising the integrity of the natural environment or a manmade monument.”
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to take in the view – some places may look better with a filter but you can’t enjoy the moment when you’re stuck looking at a phone.