What Is Instagram's Role in Overtourism?

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people taking selfie in desert
I'm guilty of it, too... selfies in the Israeli desert.

K Martinko 

Can the social media platform be blamed for the surge in camera-happy tourists?

A recent interview on CBC Radio asked the question that makes every traveller squirm: 'Is Instagram responsible for ruining many of the world's most beautiful places?' The conversation between the host and tourism writer Rosie Spinks cited multiple examples of naturally stunning locations that have been shut down in recent months because too many people are flocking to them, often in quest of selfies.

A canyon in Iceland where Justin Bieber shot a music video, the magnificent Daffodil Hill in California, the Matapouri mermaid pools in New Zealand – all of these places have been inundated with visitors, many of whom do not know how to behave themselves and leave trails of trash and excrement behind. Even the iconic 'I Am Amsterdam' sign in central Amsterdam has been removed to discourage people from taking photos.

Recife sign
Little tourists flock around the 'Recife' sign in Old Recife, Brazil. K Martinko 

Is Instagram to blame? Spinks isn't convinced. She believes that there are numerous forces at play that make tourism more accessible to people than it was several decades ago. The price of air fares is substantially lower and online booking tools make it much easier to plan a trip, without the help of a travel agent. The rise of privately owned accommodations like Airbnb is another draw, sparing people the cost of a hotel stay. Spinks suggested,

"It sounds trite... but the whole idea that Millennials value experiences over things, I think we really see that play out here. Where once maybe 20 to 30 years ago, someone in their late 20s, early 30s would be going to buy a house or a car, those things are less attainable now. So we spend that money maybe on more frequent trips and we are more motivated to capture those trips on our phone."

If Instagram can be blamed for anything, Spinks says it's the geo-tag feature, which allows people posting to add a link to the location where the photo was taken. When clicked, this offers a map directly to the site. So when a particular photo goes viral, it can result in hordes of people showing up exactly where it was, all in quest of that same view.

Spinks says she is reluctant to "put the onus on the traveller when it comes to solving a problem as complex as over-tourism" and suggests instead that the people benefiting from the tourism revenue have a responsibility to manage it properly. Organizations that were previously focused on destination marketing are pivoting toward destination management, e.g. ensuring that places don't get too many visitors at the wrong season and investing in municipal services such as trash pickup and sanitation services.

I don't share Spinks' hesitation to point the finger at travellers. I suspect that many people are travelling for less noble motives than we'd like to think. Lonely Planet wrote last year about the rise in 'last chance tourism,' the urge to visit a place before it changes or disappears completely, despite the fact that the arrival of tourists is precisely what threatens it. People are intensely addicted to Instagram and the dopamine rush that comes with showing off one's exotic locales, and I wouldn't be surprised if some people booked trips precisely with that goal in mind.

Justin Francis, CEO of British travel company Responsible Travel, says the forces governing the travel industry right now are "the TripAdvisor top 10, the listicle, and Instagram." He tells National Geographic, "The top-10 thing is partly driven by our fear of missing out but we should be less fearful, because ignoring the obvious can often lead to the most magical experiences."

There are no easy solutions, but it makes sense to follow National Geographic's advice and be responsible travellers who resist the siren call of "the most famous, most Instagrammable destinations and attractions." Strive to travel without posting anything to Instagram or, at the very least, do not add geo-tags, as that's now considered a major faux-pas among conscientious travellers. And do as Francis suggests and travel out of season whenever possible; the locals will thank you.