Do you also find yourself dreaming away when you see a photo of an ‘influencer’ (I’m still allergic to this term) posing in the most stunning and seemingly isolated location pop up in your Instagram feed? Well, let me burst that bubble for you and reveal there’s often nothing serene nor spontaneous about such a scene. Because just out of frame there’s the sobering reality of a whole line of people patiently queuing to have their own photo taken in that perfect, seemingly isolated, Insta location.
I discovered this the hard way during our recent travels. While I find social media both a blessing and curse on a personal level, I’ve witnessed some things I wish I could unsee again!
As we’re both huge fans of waterfalls, hubby and I were excited to visit several of them on our road trips through Australia and New Zealand. I even bought a special camera lens before our trip to photograph moving water and was very eager to try this out.
The first waterfall on the itinerary was Erskine Falls, one of the most famous ones on the Great Ocean Road in Australia. It was fairly easy to reach the viewing area to the falls, but we did have to cross a small river for it. Once we reached the base of the waterfall, I was pleased to see it wasn’t too crazy busy there. But then I had a closer look and saw two guys standing right underneath the waterfall, while their clothing was getting super soaked.
Although I was hesitant to go see the sun set by the Twelve Apostles, the main attraction along the Great Ocean Road in Australia, we were staying only 5 minutes away from there and our host told us we really shouldn’t miss out on it. It did look amazing as you can see in the photo on the left, but it didn’t quite feel that satisfying having to fight for my spot and being almost pushed away by other eager tourists on my right. This was one of my less pleasant and enjoyable moments of the trip.
At first I had to laugh a bit about it as it seemed so ridiculous, but as time passed on, I was getting very irritated by it all. They stood there for at least 15 minutes while making no attempt of apologising to other visitors for ruining what should have been an amazing experience. It felt like they obviously got a kick out of it too, standing there to be seen by everybody. I saw a girl standing next to me, clutching her photo camera, itching to get an unspoilt shot of this natural beauty, and like me, growing angrier by the minute.
Unfortunately both her and our patience were tested for another excruciating 30 minutes or so. Because the torture didn’t end when the guys finally decided they had taken a shower for long enough. In the meantime the crowds had grown and, now inspired by the squeaky clean men before them, more people decided it was a great idea to pose underneath the waterfall and have their photo taken.
Instagrammers are collectively sucking the joy and spontaneity out of travel photography”
– Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (Guardian)
To give you the full context: it wasn’t easy to reach the waterfall itself and I’m sure it’s not encouraged by the local authorities either. You could seriously injure yourself climbing and walking over those slippery rocks. The next ‘model’ nearly fell as she walked towards the waterfalls. (Un)fortunately she kept her balance and decided she would look better with her shirt off…
After many more posers obstructing our view of the waterfall I gave up on being able to practise with my new lens. I should have taken a photo of this absurd scene for you to see, but at the time I was quite worked up and refused to give their egos any online exposure. I felt tears well up and was so sad that this much anticipated moment was completely ruined by these selfish people who showed no respect towards fellow visitors.
I found these photos of people posing at Erskine Falls on Instagram and these are not people I saw there myself. Perhaps these people weren’t bothering anyone and perhaps it was very quiet when they had their photo taken there, but I very much doubt that to be honest. If you look closely, you can see a girl standing right next to the waterfall on the righthand photo. (Photo sources: left, right)
When we spoke about this occurrence to someone a few days later, they told us the story of their daughter who was travelling through America and had her photo taken at some mountain cliff with the most amazing scenery as a backdrop. And when the daughter got up and walked away, there was a whole queue of people all waiting to have the exact same photo taken of themselves. Apparently it’s a frequently photographed location on Instagram.
Views to die for, or is it?
I might sound like a grumpy granny now (I am turning 40 in less than two months though so at least one of these two assumptions are correct), but I despair today’s narcissistic tendency of documenting one’s travel experiences motivated mostly by having their photo seen and liked as much as possible online.
When we found ourselves at Fort Canning Park in Singapore with friends who live locally, they pointed out this staircase which has become a popular Instagram spot. Of course I had my photo taken there then as well, but only saw later there was a whole queue of people at the bottom of the staircase, waiting for their photo opportunity.
Yet I’ll be the first to admit that I’m also guilty of having my photo taken by hubby when we find ourselves in amazing surroundings with the idea of possibly posting it online, but the main differences are that I don’t plan it ahead and don’t hijack the situation nor disrespect others. And I would never risk my life for a photo. Unfortunately several ‘influencers’ have lost their lives whilst chasing that perfect Insta shot or boosting their YouTube views.
One of such recent tragic stories is of the young couple Meenakshi Moorthy and Vishnu Viswanath who ran a popular Instagram travel account. Last October their bodies were found in Yosemite, supposedly after plunging to their death in an attempt to take a selfie whilst being intoxicated. (As was revealed from their autopsy reports.)
Is mass tourism supporting or destroying Earth’s last treasures?
With the rise of more affordable plane tickets and channels like Instagram and Pinterest revealing all of Earth’s last ‘unspoilt’ spots, how long will it take for those sights to get swamped by hordes of tourists, selfiestick at hand?
Having said that, I did find these sources very useful myself in my research for our recent trip to Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. I do struggle with this dilemma at times though and ask myself if I’m becoming my own worst travel nightmare. Am I indeed being influenced in visiting certain places and putting extra pressure on the local infrastructure?
Last October authorities in Thailand decided to close one of their beaches to the public. After having been featured in the film The Beach (2000) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this had become one of the world’s most famous beaches in the world. But over time, all that was left to ‘enjoy’ here were the 5,000 daily visitors and their litter. In order to help restore the damaged ecosystem as over 80% of the coral was damaged due to pollution by the hundreds of speed boats filled with tourists made their way towards the former picturesque destination each day. (source)
Talking to a friend in New Zealand, he recognised the explosive growth of tourism on these fabulous islands. Thanks to the The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, this small country on the other side of the country, has seen a great increase in visitor numbers in recent years.
Should we then just stay at home and watch National Geographic documentaries instead? I wouldn’t say that’s absolutely necessary, but it would be advisable to look into more sustainable ways of travelling.
Respect nature & your fellow man
Walking around some beaches famed for their fur seal colonies on Otago Peninsula with the same friend, he commented on the fences and viewing platform the local authorities had put up. He remembered it used to be just an open space and people were sensible. Now they just want to get as close to the animals as possibly. I can only assume this has to do with our need for picture-perfect travel memories.
How amazing to bump into a sea lion whilst walking on the beach! I ensured to kep enough distance and was happy to use my zoom function when taking this photo. But how long until they close access to the beach here as well though because of less sensible visitors?
And while I’m writing this all down, I’m shocked to read the news about Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum spoke out against (British) visitors posting their photos on Instagram and Twitter whilst balancing on the rail tracks leading into the camp where not that long ago millions of people lost their lives under horrific circumstances. (source)
Although I don’t see this development improving in the near future, I do wish we would be more aware of the world and the people around us again instead of being so inward looking and stop being so damn narcissistic and focussing on the individual. You are awesome for you who are, not for the photos you put online.
Do you know some good websites that focus on ecotourism and responsible travel? I would love to educate myself more and be as much of a responsible traveller as I can! Links are highly appreciated, as are your thoughts on today’s selfie culture and the impact of social/popular media on (mass) tourism.
Thanks, Zarina xx