Social media: Changing the face of travel

There is a new obsession sweeping the globe. Online photo sharing sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr have engulfed the world of travel, pulling it into a new era of escapism and social interaction. From beach selfies to montages of exotic cocktails and immense sunsets, the art of travel has perhaps been changed forever, with the birth of a new breed of tourist; snapping, filtering, cropping and sharing their holidays with hundreds of followers.

Travel experiences have been recorded for centuries, with journals and diaries dating back to the Greek empire, but today’s tech society has added a whole new layer to the concept of recording travel. As more and more cafes, hotels and even tour coaches invest in free Wi-Fi, photos can be uploaded to social media sites faster than ever before. The practice of uploading our holiday images when we return home is quickly fading, with a growing trend of sharing photos instantaneously, each day we’re abroad. Such trends have been enabled by the emergence of the smart-phone, meaning that for many, the days of using a camera with a memory chip are becoming obsolete.


Not only has a fashion for documenting our lives erupted over the past decade, but we have been encouraged to present them in a rather distorted way; adding colours to sunsets that never appeared, cropping landscapes to sizes that barely do them justice and using hashtags we don’t even understand.

The trend of editing the colour, sharpness and saturation of our images goes further than just simple default filters installed on Instagram. There are now numerous apps to edit our photos even further, such as VSCOcam and Afterlight. Such apps have developed an online culture whereby each user tries to outdo one another through their photos.

The practice of uploading our holiday images when we return home is quickly fading, with a growing trend of sharing photos instantaneously, each day we’re abroad

The ‘selfie’, too, has exploded in popularity, and especially since the famous Ellen DeGeneres Oscar selfie, which is now reportedly worth up to one billion dollars. The travel sector has not escaped the rise of the self-taken photo, with tourists snapping away next to iconic world monuments, on airplanes and whilst doing extreme sports.


Away from our personal accounts, the most popular travel pages appear to be those showcasing fine dining at expensive holiday resorts, crystal white beaches and infinity pools in Asian metropolises. Worryingly, these accounts frequently favour wealth, being owned by users who can afford to travel to exclusive locations.

Perhaps the most extreme case of this is the notorious Rich kids of Instagram account, which documents a variety of wealthy teenagers flying on private jets to elite destinations such as the Maldives, St Barths and California, as well as showcasing luxury yachts and Louis Vuitton hand luggage.

Yet while such accounts hide the societal issues the ordinary tourist might encounter on holiday, such as street beggars, ocean pollution and migrants in painfully low-wage jobs, social media also celebrates world beauty and encourages adventure, open mindedness and self-discovery. Most students today have travelled further than their parents ever had when they were a similar age, and while much of this has been facilitated by developments in transportation and disposable incomes, images of online friends in far flung destinations certainly puts a level of social pressure on students to travel.


Social media may not only influence our behaviour on holiday and how we present trips to our contacts, but also where we go. The traditional travel agent is dying, with online do-it-yourself sites taking their place, and it seems that social media has become a useful marketing tool for many tour operators. Yet the fear here is that certain destinations dominating photo-sharing sites will boom, leaving locations seen as less ‘cool’ or less photogenic, yet no less rich in culture and adventure in reality, to decline.

Most students today have travelled further than their parents ever had when they were a similar age…this puts a level of social pressure on students to travel

The boom in silky images of travel destinations has, unsurprisingly, descended most heavily on the world’s tourist hotspots. But it has served to over-amplify their magnificence, and hide crushing social problems. By searching Paris on Tumblr or Instagram, you’ll discover seemingly gorgeous and romantic, pastel tinted images of the Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe and various manicured gardens. However, the city has a crippling homelessness problem, widespread pollution and a shocking level of suburban poverty. Yet these issues are omitted from most visual representation.

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However, there are various sites and users that champion unique images of culture, and landscapes of humbleness and history, sharing photos of local people, ordinary side-streets and understated landscapes. These do not champion wealth or westernization, but reveal the raw locations where often the most insightful travel experiences are to be found.

The National Geographic website allows any user to create a profile and upload world images. It has a community of users who frequently post photos of traditional scenes, intrepid travel and unusual nature-human juxtapositions. The site encourages such images, through asking users to categorize their uploads into groups such as adventure, people, architecture or nature. Yet the social aspect is not lost, as other users can leave comments, or add your photos to their favourites.

Despite this, the prevailing theme for travel images on social media continues to be one of luxury, generic beach scenes and the notorious selfie, at various tourist hotspots.

There are now calls for a revolution in the way we represent the destinations we visit. This asks us to venture off the beaten track to seek images with more insight and profundity, that are greater representations of the country we’re visiting as a whole, and to end the worshipping of luxury travel, through favoring images of humbleness, tradition and diversity.

Caitlin Kelly 

Follow Impact Travel on Twitter and Facebook

images courtesy of Giorgio MontersinoNick HarrisTakoyaki_KingSatbir Singh and Jake Walker via Flickr 


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