Social media has changed travel forever. This truth was first revealed to me on a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia a few years ago. Sure, it may have been a pre-dawn start – like many others I was there to watch the sun rise over the famous temple – but as the morning went on I became more and more agitated at having to navigate the marauding selfies- stick and the busloads of bewildered tourists to find a viewing space.
When dawn finally broke, the furious barrage of the photograph made it appear that Harry Styles had entered the frame. Only two Cambodians sitting quietly in the back of the crowd looked really stunned and present at the time. And the scene soon turned from daunting to egregious.
Damage to secure sites
When I explored the interior of Angkor Wat itself a little later, I encountered an influencer draped over a ledge, his hands clasped around a 900-year-old pillar. You could almost feel the erosion in real time. This remarkable feat of Khmer architecture had simply become a film set for this woman and her hapless boyfriend/photographer, with photos of her no doubt destined to be edited and uploaded to much online applause.
Our preoccupation with the virtual world and the endless search for likes on social media is now fully entrenched, with the phrase “doing it for the gram” – something of an explanation for why you’re crafting your breakfast for her foreground – now common language. And nowhere has it been more insidious than the world of travel, the perfect arena for users to show off and brag about a great lifestyle.
Around the world, specific locations have become Instagram pilgrimages, from the swing dangling above the rice fields of Ubud in Bali to the blue-domed village of Oia in Santorini, both with long lines of tourists after an exact picture.
Searching for selfies rather than rich cultural experiences can only lead to eye rolls, but recently the trend has become more concerning, with reckless tourists scrambling – often illegally – onto protected sites to secure the perfect shot. Earlier this month, a woman was filmed climbing a sacred Mayan pyramid in Mexico, which is prohibited and considered highly disrespectful, not to mention potentially harmful. After reaching the top and duly starting to dance, she was heckled and booed by other visitors—some even threw drinks. The clip later went viral with Twitter users criticizing her “disrespect”.
And it is certainly not an isolated case. Two American tourists recently raided Rome’s Colosseum, where a few months earlier a visitor had carved his initials into the 2,000-year-old structure – an unmistakable act of selfishness.
The trend of nudity
Even more bizarre, some self-promoting tourists have now taken to stripping in front of monuments. Last month, a British traveler sparked ire in Italy for snapping photos in front of Amalfi’s cathedral, wrapped only in a red scarf. Meanwhile, a pair of Brazilian bikini models all discovered themselves on the Eiffel Tower (before being cautioned by police), and a Dutch photographer posted a photo of her naked and in a sexually suggestive pose with a woman atop the Great Pyramid of Giza.
It’s unclear if the nudity trend is a natural next step for an attention-seeking generation or if the rise of the video-sharing platform TikTok has a part to play. While beyond influencers, Instagram is largely about 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.
Thus, the most popular videos tend to be pranks, tricks and outlandish dances, which may explain why shock tactics, such as stripping off at tourist sites, are becoming increasingly popular.
But is social media to blame for this obsessed behavior? Psychotherapist Noel McDermott suggests these apps only amplify behaviors rather than create them. “In terms of the more narcissistic and vanity-based traits, social media reinforces them where they exist in people to begin with,” he argues.
Either way, the rise of tourists mindlessly taking selfies is causing sites to close some sensitive areas or even close altogether. In 2019, Australia’s Uluru closed permanently to climbers, in part due to the impact of disrespectful visitors, while Iceland’s Fjadrárgljúfur canyon was forced to close for four months after a Justin Bieber video caused a flurry of fans who went there hoping to emulate their idol. Even those who view the Mona Lisa have been limited to one-minute sessions, no doubt due to those persistent selfie sticks.
For Noel McDermott, however, the cultural impact of social platforms isn’t all bad news, and he believes they could foster greater human connection and even better travel experiences.
But it’s not all bad news
She says: “Social media has increased connections around the world, so overall it has made us less individualistic. It celebrates our desire to present the best version of ourselves [and] it encourages travel and exploration and also a desire to share our stories with each other. This in turn has encouraged more people 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 uptick in travelers seeking rustic, unplugged travel experiences. According to research by Booking.com, a third of UK travelers want their holidays in 2023 to have a ‘back-to-basics feel’ with only the ‘bare essentials’, while 57% are looking for something unusual holiday plot to switch off and escape from reality. Only half said a phone and internet connection at the destination is essential, so perhaps we aren’t lost in the metaverse just yet.
Another glimmer of hope is that what has been seen as the bane of travel may actually be its salvation. In the case of the Mayan Ruins Trespasser, for example, the clip that went viral drew attention to the behavior and sparked a conversation about respectful tourism. Similarly, social media has cast a spotlight on overtourism and concerns about sustainability.
The long-term social impact of platforms like TikTok and Twitter remains to be seen, although there are likely to be negatives and positives – let’s just hope naked selfies don’t hang around.