Before lockdown, travelling in the late 2010s and moving into 2020 seemed like a dizzying spin-off of Danny Boyle’s film The Beach (2000). In this film, a young, golden-hued Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Richard, who arrives in Southeast Asia for a contrived sense of adventure offered by an environment he sees as ‘different’ to his own. When he and a traveller friend come across the titular beach on a serene island, they promise the local residents they won’t disclose its location to anyone else in order to maintain the serene, lush space.
Well, as we could have predicted, they didn’t keep their promise; Richard tells others about this secluded, formerly idyllic community. Due to the film, the actual beach—Ko Phi Phi Le's Maya Bay in Thailand—was ruined not only from filming, but from the swathes of tourists arriving at the now well-known spot. Now, twenty years later, with Instagram geotags would the beach have become a media, tourist-speckled frenzy far quicker than it did? Vice journalist Bettina Makalintal wrote about this issue in February 2020, saying “social media expedites the problem, prompting huge amounts of interest in destinations that aren’t prepared for an onslaught of tourism.” The capturing of these travelled spaces through social media grids like Instagram or travel vlogs on Youtube not only has destroyed the natural environments of these destinations, but has created a hierarchy of authentic and ‘fake’ travel experiences.
The design of social media has undeniably impacted modes of travel in search for the most ‘authentic,’ most ‘local’ experience in contrast to the predictability of overflowing souvenir shops or garish postcard images. Due to the standardisation of these travel tropes through new media, who would want to be caught unironically wearing an “I <3 Barcelona” t-shirt rather than having a candid photo taken eating bombas and ensaladilla de cranc at local restaurant: Bar Bodega l’Electricitat? According to local guide, Clàudia, “she’s never seen a tourist there”, despite it being listed on an article intended for foreign travellers titled “10 Ways to Experience Barcelona Like A Local”. The secrecy and intuition of a local resident have become prized travelling traits as people cling to these displays of the authentic experience in contrast to that of the contrived tourist.
Due to the saturation of these scenic and urban locations by tourists via social media and geotagging on Instagram stories, some have taken to abandoning posting their travel discoveries altogether. However, others argue that by not tagging and keeping these places to one’s self those without the cultural capital or awareness of these places through their social circles are being excluded. The counterpoint to these anti-geotag movements is crystallised in Danielle Williams’s viral blog post “5 Reasons Why You Should Keep Geotagging” Williams, founder of DiversifyOutdoors.com, observes that not geotagging “is fostering a classic game of keep-away, with undertones steeped in racial and socioeconomic privilege.” By not tagging or mistagging, those who don’t have the knowledge of these places aren’t given an equal opportunity to explore the outdoors. Conde Nast Traveller writer, Tyler Moss, offers a potential remedy for this, suggesting “to use the geotagged photos not as blueprints, but as inspiration for uncovering our own Roys Peaks and super blooms.” Ideally, travel displayed on social media should inspire rather than standardise experiences and help to ease the awkward nuances of being a tourist in an entirely new locale.
Specific locations are now advertised for their “uniqueness” and how this sets them apart from typical landmarks. Especially among the vast landscape of America, social media has made these previously local destinations brimming with tourists. Dana Watts, executive director of the organisation Leave No Trace, observed in an interview with the New York Times that what’s growing to be a particular concern “are Instagram influencers hired by brands to promote a particular place or product” or both. Much like whatever chunky knit sweater, skinny tea, or facial wash the influencer is selling, the location has become a coveted way to obtain some fleeting semblance of an authentic ‘lifestyle’ more similar to rose-tinted Urban Outfitters ads than the banality of your cramped uni bedroom or predictable strip mall in suburban America. Culture and authenticity have been intertwined into the outdoors, or more specifically the areas favoured on Instagram.
The design of these digital platforms themselves, whether they be more commercially or socially driven, is deeply embedded with the act of sharing. Individual profiles, and therefore travelsites are growing around the currency of the individual experience. This visual experience then gains traction in the digital sphere through sharing or posting. The saturation of this individual, anecdotal knowledge has transformed travel from the ‘tourist’ to the ‘local’ in search of obtaining these picture-perfect moments and experiences. However, when looking at the underpinnings of ‘sharing’, sociologist Paula Bialski notes that “one begins to unravel questions pertaining to possession and property, exclusion and inclusion.” This is exhibited by the interface of Airbnb for instance, which bodes well with the streamlined aesthetics of ‘authenticity’ on other digital platforms like Instagram. The glossy, professional photos framed on Airbnb’s website, much like the standard tropes upheld by travellers, “establish a sort of aesthetic regime that the users of the platform must adhere to in order to be a successful host [...] Thus ‘what’ is being shared is predetermined by the interface—in this case, stylish, glossy, well-kept apartments that adhere to a certain global cosmopolitan aesthetic.” The idealised home-away-from-home being sold both tangibly and intangibly on these platforms through specific photographs demonstrates this prevalent connection between travel and authenticity. Where is one more authentic than their own home? Or, in this case, an apartment with the same IKEA decor as yours, transplanted into a new city?
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, posts of travel have dried up with the exception of throwback photos and photos capturing one’s daily allowance of exercise time. There has been a lot of conversation about the fall of the influencer due to the pandemic and predicted accompanying recession. The currency of traveller Instagram posts most likely will continue on an upward trend after this period ends and people are able to venture outside of their homes gradually once again. Hopefully this homebound period of stasis will make the experience of travel more novel and appreciated rather than a holiday-season given. Following the slogan of the Leave No Trace organisation: “Enjoy Your World, Leave No Trace!” digitally or physically; your life will still be lived whether it's framed in the colour-coded aesthetics of authenticity or not.