Social media has changed travel forever. This truth first revealed itself to me on a trip to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat a few years ago. Admittedly, it may have been the pre-dawn start – like many others I was there to see the sun rise above the famous temple – but as the morning went on I became increasingly agitated at having to navigate the marauding selfie-sticks and busloads of bewildered tourists to find a viewing space.
When sunrise finally came, the furious flurry of photography made it feel as if Harry Styles had walked into the frame. Only two Cambodians sitting quietly near the back of the crowd seemed to be truly awestruck and present in the moment. And the scene soon turned from dispiriting to egregious.
Damaging protected sites
When exploring the interior of Angkor Wat itself a little later, I passed an influencer draped over a ledge, hands gripped tightly around a 900-year-old column. You could almost feel the real-time erosion. This amazing feat of Khmer architecture had simply become a film set for this woman and her hapless boyfriend/photographer, with the photos no doubt destined to be edited and uploaded to much online applause.
Our preoccupation with the virtual world and endless quest for social media likes is now fully ingrained, with the phrase “doing it for the ‘gram” – a sort of explanation as to why you’re artfully arranging your breakfast for its close-up – now common parlance. And nowhere has it been more insidious than the world of travel – the perfect arena for users to show-off and brag about a fantasy lifestyle.
Across the globe, specific locations have become Instagram pilgrimages, from the swing that dangles above the rice paddies of Bali’s Ubud to the blue-domed village of Oia in Santorini, both of which see hefty queues of holidaymakers after an exact image.
Seeking selfies rather than rich cultural experiences may just provoke eyerolls, but recently the trend has become more troubling, with thoughtless tourists clambering – often illegally – over protected sites to secure the perfect shot. Earlier this month, a woman was filmed climbing up a sacred Mayan pyramid in Mexico, which is prohibited and seen as highly disrespectful, not to mention potentially damaging. After she reached the top and duly began dancing, she was heckled and booed by other visitors – some even threw drinks. The clip later went viral with Twitter users slamming her “lack of respect”.
And it’s certainly not an isolated incident. Two American tourists recently broke into Rome’s Colosseum where a few months earlier a visitor had etched his initials into the 2,000-year-old structure – an unambiguous act of egotism.
The nudity trend
Even more bizarrely, some self-promoting tourists have now taken to stripping off in front of monuments. Last month, a British traveller sparked ire in Italy for taking photos in front of Amalfi’s cathedral, wrapped only in a red scarf. Meanwhile, a pair of Brazilian bikini models bared all at the Eiffel Tower (before being cautioned by police) and a Dutch photographer posted a picture of himself nude and in a sexually suggestive pose with a woman atop the Great Pyramid at Giza.
It’s unclear whether the nudity trend is a natural next step for an attention-seeking generation, or whether the rise of the video-sharing platform TikTok has a role to play. Whereas beyond influencers, Instagram is broadly based around showing-off to friends or an extended social circle, content creators on the newer platform are generally attempting to woo a larger, more anonymous audience.
As such, the most popular videos tend to be pranks, tricks and wacky dances, which might explain why increased shock tactics, such as stripping off at tourist sites, are becoming more popular.
But is social media squarely to blame for this self-obsessed behaviour? Psychotherapist Noel McDermott suggests these apps only amplify behaviours rather than create them. “In terms of more narcissistic and vanity-based traits, social media reinforces them where they exist in people to begin with,” he argues.
Either way, the uptick in unthinking selfie-snapping tourists is causing sites to rope off certain sensitive areas or even shut entirely. In 2019, Australia’s Uluru closed to climbers for good, in part due to the impact of disrespectful visitors, while Iceland’s Fjadrárgljúfur canyon was forced to shut for four months after a video from Justin Bieber caused a flurry of fans to travel there hoping to emulate their idol. Even those viewing the Mona Lisa have been limited to one-minute sessions, no doubt because of those lingering selfie-sticks.
For Noel McDermott, however, the cultural impact of social platforms is not all bad news and he believes they could promote increased human connection and even better travel experiences.
But it's not all bad news
He says: “Social media has increased connections worldwide so on the whole has made us less individualistic. It enhances our desire to present the best version of ourselves [and] encourages travel and exploration and also the desire to share our stories with each other. This in turn has encouraged more folk to travel and explore. It has also forced travel providers to improve their services.”
It should also be noted that, perhaps as a form of backlash, there has been a recent increase in travellers seeking unplugged, rustic travel experiences. According to research from Booking.com, a third of UK travellers want their holidays in 2023 to have a more “back-to-basics feel” with only the “bare necessities”, while 57 per cent are looking for off-the-beaten track holidays to switch off and escape from reality. Only half said a phone and internet connection at their destination is essential, so perhaps we aren’t lost to the metaverse just yet.
Another glimmer of hope is that what has been seen as the scourge of travel could actually be its salvation. In the case of the Mayan ruins trespasser, for example, the clip going viral drew attention to the behaviour and sparked a conversation about respectful tourism. Social media has similarly shone a spotlight on overtourism and sustainability concerns.
The long-term societal impact of platforms like TikTok and Twitter remains to be seen, though there are likely to be negatives and positives – let’s just hope the nude selfie-takers won’t endure.