Has Insta­gram changed our expec­ta­tion of trav­el or have we always been gullible?

Instagram has offered an adrenaline shot to global tourism – brands, landmarks and locals are keen to cash-in.

Tap world’s most Insta­gram­ma­ble loca­tions” into any search engine and expect a tidal wave of lis­ti­cles and com­pi­la­tions, each more flat­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry than the last. Some take a glo­ri­ous­ly birds eye, macro approach; one per­son­al favourite has Aus­tralia” at num­ber one and the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca” at eight. Food for thought, cer­tain­ly. Oth­ers bur­row down into slight­ly more detail than sim­ply rec­om­mend­ing con­ti­nent sized nations. There’s the usu­al array of pur­pose built New York cafes and old timey Lon­don tourist spots. Cha Cha Matcha and West­min­ster Abbey, blend­ed into one vibrant, utter­ly inex­plic­a­ble con­tent cocktail.

The Lem­puyang Tem­ple in Bali is a spot that crops up with impres­sive con­sis­ten­cy. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see why. Two sym­met­ri­cal crags of intri­cate­ly carved rock, poised between an almost eeri­ly serene body of water, set off against a vast expanse of sky. The reflec­tions caused by the lake make the whole tableau feel like a nat­ur­al opti­cal illu­sion, curat­ed by some inge­nious fig­ure from an unknow­able, ancient past. Though very much a still func­tion­ing site of Hin­du wor­ship, it’s become some­thing of up and com­ing” west­ern tourist spot, where thou­sands of vis­i­tors arrive every year, from every cor­ner of the world for a chance to pose for the per­fect hol­i­day snapshot. 


Poli­na Mari­no­va was no dif­fer­ent. The For­tune Mag­a­zine edi­tor was in Bali with her part­ner last month, when they decid­ed to tread the well trod­den path to the Gates to Heav­en”, as they’ve become known in inter­net trav­el par­lance. Mari­no­va tells me that their guide flat­ly declared there was no water on their approach – just a reflec­tive slate of glass which would be affixed to a phone to give the illu­sion of water. It doesn’t sound like much, but it stung enough for Mari­no­va to write an exco­ri­at­ing Tweet thread that quick­ly went viral. 

The reac­tions range from omfgs”, to howls of increduli­ty, to pro­files who, frankly, asked for a lit­tle per­spec­tive on the sit­u­a­tion. Among their num­ber were sev­er­al Bali­nese posters who won­dered at what the big deal was, and how it dif­fered from Hol­ly­wood use of CGI? Oth­ers sug­gest­ed that it was locals that came up with the idea, a neat mon­ey spin­ner and boost for the local econ­o­my (hurt tourist feel­ings aside). 

Not that Mari­no­va was beg­ging for sym­pa­thy. It was”, as Mari­no­va explains, beau­ti­ful nonethe­less, but it was absolute­ly not what I had seen on Insta­gram”. The range and depth of the response to her hol­i­day rev­e­la­tion came from a nag­ging­ly famil­iar feel­ing; that social media is a cor­rupt­ing influ­ence, a tool which was rais­ing expec­ta­tions to the point that real­i­ty becomes pal­try and dimin­ished in com­par­i­son. The Gates to Heav­en might be a place of jaw drop­ping beau­ty, but is that the same thing as Insta­gram­ma­ble” when minus the con­fect­ed water”?

It’s a ques­tion that serves as an inter­est­ing reminder of just how rad­i­cal­ly Insta­gram has changed our expec­ta­tions of trav­el. In 2018, it was report­ed that there were a cumu­la­tive 346million posts on #trav­el, with a Face­book con­duct­ed study also sug­gest­ing that 67% of trav­el enthu­si­asts” on the plat­form use the app to plan their next holiday.

There are some who believe that the platform’s influ­ence has been noth­ing but a pos­i­tive thing on our trav­el­ling habits. Hes­ter Bates is Head of Brand Strat­e­gy at Influ­encer, a con­tent mar­ket­ing agency that spe­cialise in con­nect­ing influ­encers to brands for tai­lored cam­paigns. She believes that Insta­gram is a tool for good, as it “[has made] the world feel even more acces­si­ble. You are able to see places that you nev­er knew you could trav­el to and sud­den­ly feel like you can because oth­er peo­ple have done the same. I feel as though mil­len­ni­als are tak­ing more risks and trav­el­ling to more exot­ic places across the world because they’ve seen so many beau­ti­ful images and want to see them for themselves.”

Hes­ter is clear when I ask if they would ever advise their influ­encers to embell­ish their trav­el pic­tures for bet­ter engage­ment, stress­ing the need for organ­ic” and authen­tic” content. 

The last few years have wit­nessed a rash of sim­i­lar sto­ries. Of ruth­less trav­el influ­encers dis­re­gard­ing small pro­fes­sion­al cour­te­sies like objec­tive real­i­ty”, some­times with scant effort expend­ed in the decep­tion. In 2018, Swedish influ­encer Johan­na Ols­son came in for flak when her pic­tures from an all expens­es paid jaunt to Paris were so unskill­ful­ly Pho­to­shopped that the result was sus­tained ridicule and even requests from Swedish TV to come and talk about the con­cept of fake trav­el”. Though per­haps it’s unfair to offer up indi­vid­ual influ­encers up as bas­tions of fak­ery, when there’s an entire ser­vice tai­lored to offer­ing fake Insta­gram hol­i­day pho­tos for any­one who can’t be both­ered to go through the rig­ma­role of snap­ping the real thing. 

Though they seem easy tar­gets, the moral cen­so­ri­ous­ness around these sto­ries of deceit” seems disingenuous. 

Look around – we now live in a high­ly curat­ed world and the savvi­er brands (and land­marks) are quick to cash-in on our desire to get some great shots for the gram. Take, for instance, LA’s famous Paul Smith Pink Wall. It has become a land­mark unto itself thanks to the fact that it, like, looks cool on Insta­gram (#pinkwall has 147k entries). It was defaced anti-self­ie” activists last year, who sprayed go fuck ur self­ie” on it, though nat­u­ral­ly, the graf­fi­ti brought more vis­i­tors than ever. The brand has main­tained the fetch­ing shade of Pep­to-Bis­mol pink because it attracts vis­i­tors, because Instagram. 


Or, there’s the heavy cloak of twee gen­til­i­ty that hangs over a pri­vate Lon­don club like Annabel’s. It might feel a uni­verse away from the Gates to Heav­en – but their care­ful­ly man­i­cured Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions serve the same pur­pose as that sheet of plas­tic; they are both tools for crack­ing the Ins­ta algo­rithm and break­ing through” the noise on the plat­form in a bid to attract more visitors. 

We’re so keen on get­ting an eye-catch­ing shot that there are now Insta­gram des­ti­na­tion tours – usu­al­ly mar­ket­ed exclu­sive”, cosy affairs, often led by a local influ­encer”. One Ams­ter­dam tour offers most of the city’s usu­al tourist spots, but the real sell­ing point is the chance to get a pic­ture tak­en by (not with) the host, for the rea­son­able price of €65/​head. Oth­ers offer coach tours, to bus larg­er groups (which tend to run a sim­i­lar cost) to all the most Insta­grammed spots in a city (the Pink Wall is a stop on the LA tour). 

All of these are mark­ers of Instagram’s impact on glob­al tourism, more akin to an adren­a­line shot than any­thing else. One small town in New Zealand post­ed a 14% rise in tourism after invit­ing influ­encers for vis­its. Norway’s Troll’s Tongue’ view­point post­ed 80,000 vis­i­tors in 2016- that num­ber stood at 800 in 2010, after a huge spike in social media atten­tion. We can debate how wel­come these changes have turned out to be, it’s they’re impact that’s impos­si­ble to ignore.

And though no one likes being duped, it’s not like it’s any­thing new. Trav­el media has always trad­ed on embell­ish­ment and hyper­bole. Some of the great­est trav­el writ­ing is known to be at least the result of over­stim­u­lat­ed cre­ative minds. In 2008, the dis­tin­guished trav­el writer Thomas Kohn­stamm admit­ted that many of his pieces were fab­ri­ca­tions, writ­ten far away from the loca­tions he had claimed to vis­it. One par­tic­u­lar­ly vivid, inci­dent-crammed trip to Colom­bia was writ­ten from San Fran­cis­co, as Lone­ly Plan­et sim­ply weren’t pay­ing me enough”. 

Dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, I asked Mari­no­va why she thinks her Tweet touched a nerve so force­ful­ly. Per­haps, after all, this is the nat­ur­al result when a land­scape becomes a ready com­mod­i­ty? It’s become so accept­able to doc­tor pho­tos by using fil­ters or apps to make us and our sur­round­ings look bet­ter than real­i­ty that illu­sions have become a part of our cul­ture,” she agrees, argu­ing that com­pet­i­tive fak­ery has become a big part of our lives. “[But] before you get FOMO or a pang of jeal­ousy of someone’s pic­ture-per­fect vaca­tion, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that it’s prob­a­bly not real­i­ty. It’s like­ly just a piece of glass under an iPhone”.

And she offers one final the­o­ry as to why her pho­to of a tourist trap that only half exists man­aged to res­onate with so many peo­ple. It’s the larg­er cul­tur­al shift that appears to be tak­ing place, where per­cep­tion trumps reality. 

Take what hap­pened with Fyre Fes­ti­val, for exam­ple,” Mari­no­va says. Peo­ple pur­chased tick­ets because of what they saw their favourite Insta­gram influ­encers post on social media. [Then real­i­ty] came crash­ing down once they went there in per­son. It’s pret­ty remark­able just how much mon­ey peo­ple are will­ing to shell out for that one Insta­gram-wor­thy moment that in no way reflects reality.”

00:00 / 00:00