Is Instagram 'sucking the life and soul' out of travel?

There's nothing like a good travel photo to make you want to go somewhere. But is the constant posting of images while on your trip ruining the experience for everyone?

An Instagram image of an Instagrammer in Penang, Malaysia. Rosemary Behan
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Before you go on holiday or even pick the destination, do you look the hotel or location up on Instagram, just to make sure that the photos live up to what you see on official websites? Do you experience a kind of virtual envy, whereby you want to be the one posting such amazing pictures?

If the answer is yes, you’re probably a millennial, and possibly one of the 40 per cent of this demographic who, according to a 2017 survey by an insurance company, choose a holiday spot based first and foremost on its “Instagrammability”. Ignoring for the moment that this activity isn’t (yet) a verb, I think we are definitely seeing a “youthquake” in terms of how holidays are booked.

Yet the spontaneous success of Instagram in travel should come as no surprise. Travel marketers and media outlets have known for years that good pictures “make you want to go there”; bad or so-so ones have the power to turn you off. This is because people are visually motivated, and, when you’re spending a huge amount of time or money travelling somewhere, you want to make sure you’re making the right choice.

This week, in a badly argued but well-read piece, a Guardian columnist complained, after a recent trip to Sri Lanka, that “Instagrammers are collectively sucking the joy and spontaneity of travel photography, and for those unfortunate enough to bump into them abroad, possibly travel itself. We must pity the poor locals, who have to put up with them.”

Yet from my experience, I’ve only ever had people object to me taking photographs with a large DSLR camera. Smartphones are much less intrusive, and thus much more widely acceptable to people, who, apart from anything else, can by now, in most parts of the world, relate to them.

Yes, there are issues with the herd mentality of some travellers, who seem not to experience a place in real time and only see a place through the lens of their own smartphone. I’ve been on organised media trips where the entire group has been repeatedly held up as people with no real interest in or knowledge of a place spend precious time perfecting their selfies. I’ve been asked to help take photos of people in various banal poses and inwardly railed at the deeply tragic nature of people, which sometimes seems to impose a form of visual pollution on otherwise beautiful places.

Sometimes, the extreme obsession with social media activity leads to users falling off the sides of mountains, or the top of tall buildings.

Like all new technology, it’s about how we use it, and this includes how we react to others using this technology on the road. There’s no point being snotty about people taking pictures of food or places, if it doesn’t directly impact you; if they are in your way at a particular site, learn to tune them out, or choose less touristy locations. When I travelled to Penang in Malaysia a few years ago, I was struck by the apparent innocence of so many young Asian travellers, who drew genuine joy from the process of recording and sharing images of themselves in a place, with a particular background.

Ignoring over-active Instagrammers is a skill we can all learn, and we can also practise regulating our own use of an addictive technology which also happens to offer an extraordinary window on the world. Like everything else, it’s a process; we can all experience the rush of getting dozens of likes from a particular picture, offering a drip-feed of social recognition or even affirmation for days afterwards. As a journalist, I find the process useful, as I now have a much more comprehensive visual notebook from which to write my stories.

But we can also learn to take a break from Instagram, to re- learn to relish the pure private joy of travel, unbothered by whether or not the next person is doing the same.


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