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.”