Social Media Tourism Is Damaging the Planet

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Suðurland, Iceland.

Fifteen years ago, a remote stretch of Icelandic countryside along the southern coast was practically deserted. The family that had owned and farmed the land for generations had relocated to Reykjavík, a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. A few adventurous visitors occasionally stumbled upon the area, which, besides being ideal sheep pasture, boasts a narrow, steep-sided canyon with an otherworldly “Lord of the Rings” aesthetic.

Around 2013, things started to change. Intrepid travelers began sharing photos of the canyon on social media, often with geolocation tags attached. Suddenly, anyone with internet access could locate this stunning, secluded spot. The influx of visitors quickly began to grow. Then, in 2015, a pivotal moment arrived: Justin Bieber, accompanied by a film crew, arrived to shoot the music video for his song “I’ll Show You.” They filmed at several locations along Iceland’s southern coast, including the canyon. As the video fades in, we see Bieber, dressed casually in jeans and a hoodie, walking along a cliff edge in sneakers. “My life is a movie / And everyone’s watchin’,” we hear Bieber sing from the canyon rim. Since its upload to YouTube in November 2015, the video has garnered over half a billion views.

Within a few years, the canyon’s visitor count surged from approximately 3,000 annually to 300,000, according to an employee of the Environment Agency of Iceland I spoke with. However, at that time, there wasn’t even a proper parking lot for visitors, let alone amenities like bathrooms, walkways, or interpretive signage to manage the crowds. Lacking any infrastructure to protect it, the landscape transformed into a mud pit – and the canyon’s owners were overwhelmed by the sudden surge in popularity.

It’s easy to grasp the impact a video featuring a mega-celebrity like Bieber can have on a location. But what about travel content from an ordinary social media user? Could it really be that detrimental? It turns out that those of us with relatively low follower counts have a far greater influence than we might realize. And this is a power that we must all learn to wield responsibly.

A showed that nearly half of respondents looked to influencers for travel inspiration and revealed that a full 86% chose their travel destinations based on social media content posted by a friend, family member, or peer. Among Gen Z, the latter figure rose to 92%. Evidently, people are genuinely interested in our vacation photos, especially when they pop up in their social media feeds. And the content we create could be shaping their travel decisions.

A of British adults aged 18 to 33 found that 40% of respondents cited “how ‘Instagrammable’” a travel destination would be as their most important motivator when deciding where to go on vacation. A follow-up of Gen Z travelers found that “how many TikTok views and likes their holiday videos will likely generate” was the single most influential factor in their destination decisions, coming in at number one for 43% of respondents. And if you look at a ranking of the world’s most Instagrammed locations, tourist destinations fill the list: Disneyland, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Niagara Falls, Machu Picchu, and Waikīkī, all made a recent top 20.

The notion of viewing a travel destination primarily as an Instagram-worthy backdrop echoes the most significant criticism leveled at travel writing throughout history: that the genre perpetuates colonial tropes, or even worse, creates new ones. While social media has dramatically increased the number and diversity of “travel writers” around the world, it has also encouraged many of us to roam the globe seeking out people and landscapes we can exploit for our own personal gain.

Tilburg University scholar Sean Smith has made a career out of this very phenomenon. Understanding these dynamics is crucial, he argues, because Instagram isn’t just a platform for fun and games: the images shared on the app provide a blueprint of the ideologies underlying modern tourism. In his work, Smith has how many of our Instagram posts perpetuate colonial stereotypes, citing several recurring examples: “the tropical exotic” (for instance, a tourist standing alone in a Cambodian ruin); “the promontory gaze” (Bieber contemplating the Icelandic landscape from a cliff edge); and, lastly, “fantasized assimilation” (a tourist dons a sari and poses with a group of Indian women to create a shot to impress their friends).

Smith contends that these recurring visual motifs, laden with colonial echoes, depict tourist destinations “as available for possession and consumption.” The constant creation and sharing of these types of images perpetuates the perception that tourists have the right to “consume” a destination in this way. Smith points out that while many of us have become sensitive to the colonial overtones of 20th-century and earlier travel writing, we now need to apply the same scrutiny to what we see – and what we produce – on social media. “As a new multimodal form of travel writing,” Smith writes, “Instagram offers a largely uncritical space for antiquated notions of travel.”

So, what’s a responsible tourist to do in this context? Should we abandon social media, or at least refrain from posting? Tempting, but not necessarily the answer.

We can start by questioning the value of what we see on social media and by being attuned to the meanings and implications that lie beneath the surface of the images. When creating a post, we can shift the focus from ourselves to something or someone else. We can share something that reflects the kind of perspective or story we hope someone else might share about us or about our hometown. And we can remind ourselves that we hold considerable power as “influencers” over those who follow us, even if they’re just old high school acquaintances and second cousins.

Because people are observing our actions – and it’s shaping their perception of the world.

Adapted from by Paige McClanahan. Copyright © 2024 by Paige McClanahan. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, LLC.