Can social media influencers on Instagram use their sharing and promotional power – something which helped accelerate overtourism – to affect and shift traveler decisions for positive impact? We offer a set of tips and considerations that each of us — professional influencers as well as everyday social media users – can employ to be part of a solution to overtourism.
Have you ever been inspired to visit a travel destination or set off on an experience just because you saw it on Instagram? Have you ever attempted to recreate the exact image which inspired you in the first place?
If so, you’re not alone. We all understand this anecdotally. However, a recent study in the United Kingdom nails it: 41% of respondents indicate “Instagrammability” as the most important factor in choosing where to travel.
“What’s the harm in that?” you might ask. A sizable chunk of the traveling public has always traveled based on visual inspiration.
True. Now let’s focus on how this plays out today. Take the collective impact of a growing number of travelers seeking the “right” Instagram shot and those desired shots tending to a limited set of destinations and sights. Couple that with a massive increase in the volume of travelers (1.3 to 1.8 billion in the next 12 years), and you get the perfect storm of overtourism brewing in a growing number of destinations today.
Recently, we spoke at TravelCon to other bloggers and influencers on widening the sustainable tourism movement. As we examined overtourism and the role of social media, we asked the question: as an influencer or social media sharer who cares, is there anything you can do to make a dent? To be part of the overtourism solution?
To use your influence…to influence a positive shift?
A note on the term “influencer”: Although the term “influencer” tends to speak to professionals who make a living from writing and social media, we are all influencers in some way. In fact, recommendations from friends and family are the most effective marketing there is. No matter how small your Instagram or social media following may be, what you post and how you post it does matter. You probably influence others’ decisions and actions more than you think.
10 Ways to use Social Media and Blogging to Help Combat Overtourism
Continue posting the beautiful, stirring images that your community loves. At the same time, consider how your posting can deliberately raise awareness of an issue, to shift and change how your community chooses to act and travel. Not all of the messages will land with everyone in your audience, but many will. Consciousness adds up and makes a difference over time.
1. Share images and stories from lesser-known places to encourage travel to different destinations
Imagine using Instagram and social media to help spread tourists across different destinations and sights. A majority of travelers (70%) head to a relatively small number of countries (20%), cities and natural parks (source: WTTC & McKinsey report). And within those places they are often visiting a limited number of sights or “top ten list” items.
Consider using your platforms, no matter how big or small, to showcase countries, regions, cities, experiences, outings, and treks that are not well-traveled in regions which could truly benefit from increased tourism. This approach opens your audience to new parts of the world. It can also help tear down stereotypes, fears and assumptions along the way.
For example, when we traveled through Ethiopia we shared photos and stories of landscapes, historical sights, markets, food, and people. Even though we’d considered ourselves well-traveled, Ethiopia surprised us in so many ways.
Ethiopia suffers from the stigma of famine in the 80s and a narrative of war and poverty. However, tourism development can help to spread money into regions and small communities.
2. Tell the backstory of the place and its people
Consider providing more of the backstory – the history, culture, environment and current socio-economic situation — when you post those iconic images or write about the latest place you’ve visited. This helps future visitors to those destinations engage and interact with its people more respectfully.
If you’re stuck for a structure on how to do this, consider the construct of: where that destination or people have been (its past), where they are now (its present), and where they want to go (its future). With the final point, you engage your audience in the journey to impact the destination and its future.
For example, when we published our guide to trekking in Ladakh, we not only mentioned our incredible trekking experiences there, but we also talked about the fragile high desert landscape and the Tibetan Ladakhi culture and people. Stanzin Odzer, founder of Ecological Footprints, the local trekking agency we set out with, told us later that he appreciated the awareness carried by clients who came via our website:
“We love to walk with them, because they are aware of everything — Ladakh’s fragile environment and also about culture.”
Considering that around 60% of his clients come via our website, that implies not just quantity, but also quality, of traveler traffic.
3. Help Eliminate Travel Entitlement
We’ve all seen, and probably do our best to dodge, that traveler. You know, the person who feels that he is entitled to do whatever he wants because he’s on vacation. He paid for it. He steps over and in front of everyone while getting the shot he deserves, he’s rude to people trying to serve him, and he’s loudest at night when people are trying to sleep because what he has to say is truly important.
What can we do?
One approach: call it out directly. Be upfront on what sort of traveler behavior is obnoxious, offensive, and disrespectful. I may be naïve here, but I’m guessing most people don’t want to be this way. But, some don’t recognize themselves unless the specific behaviors are called out as worthy of change.
This begins with the understanding that as travelers we are all guests. Respectfulness begets respect. This means learning about cultural norms, dressing respectably, being quiet on the streets so that local people can be rested for work or school the next day, taking care of trash and resource use, and being aware just as you are curious.
Ultimately, it means seeking first to understand before judging…and complaining. When we do that as travelers, we tend to have deeper experiences, as locals are more likely to want to engage and connect with us when we’re not acting entitled.
4. Highlight experiences from social enterprises and community organizations
Tours with travel-related social enterprises and community development organizations usually offer excellent ways to connect with local people and have an immersive experience. In addition, these organizations reinvest profits into the community for local projects and development. Sometimes these social enterprises work with marginalized communities offering employment and other opportunities that might not otherwise be available. It’s a win-win for everyone.
However, these local initiatives often don’t have a big marketing budgets to promote themselves.
This means that when you take the time to share a photo or story from a worthwhile experience you’ve had with such an organization, it offers provides them a marketing boost. It helps other travelers learn about these organizations more easily. Ultimately, you’re doing travelers a service by helping them find unique experiences.
On the tourism development project we advised in Kyrgyzstan, the blogger and influencer campaign focused on the new tours and tourism products offered by local community Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) in Karakol, Osh, South Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul and Jyrgalan. The tours featured were created and run by local families and organizations and benefitted them directly. They also offered new ways for travelers to connect easily with locals and learn about their cuisine, culture, history and environment.
Finally, proceeds from the tours were important to the DMOs’ long-term sustainability, as the revenue streams they provide will outlast foreign donor funding.
Thanks to last year’s social media and blogging promotional push of these experiences, this year’s summer season has boomed for these community tourism development organizations. Local employment and job opportunities have increased with this growth. Because of these new tours and their promotion, travelers spend more time in the destination, and the economic benefit spreads throughout the community via local restaurants, accommodation and other businesses.
5. Raise awareness of behaviors that may cause unintended harm
Sometimes we do things as travelers that we assume are harmless, don’t have much impact, or maybe even help local people and places — when it turns out that the opposite is true.
The reality is that sometimes our actions have unforeseen, unintended negative consequences.
For example, our awareness of child welfare in travel has increased. This includes the unintended harm of giving to children who beg, visiting schools during classroom time, and photographing children. The same goes for many volunteering and voluntourism programs, especially those in orphanages.
Although each of these complex issues can be difficult to unpack via a single social media post, it’s possible to begin or continue the conversation. For a tongue-in-cheek example of an account dedicated these issues, check out Barbie Savior on Instagram.
As you do, avoid preaching. Instead, offer alternatives from your range of experience which serve the traveler and the destination and its people. If you don’t know where to start, take a look at our ten tips for travelers to help combat overtourism.
6. Don’t geotag or add location data to fragile natural areas
One of the positive impacts of social media – Instagram especially — has been to encourage more travelers to get into nature, to go on treks, and to visit National Parks. Unfortunately, there’s also a down side to this great push to the outdoors.
Some fragile natural areas have been destroyed or are in the process of being ruined by the influx of Instagram-influenced tourists. Once peaceful and tranquil locations are swarmed by hordes of visitors angling for the best, and likely the same, Instagram shot or selfie.
- Can this place withstand more and more visitors without destroying what makes it beautiful and unique in the first place?
- Does it have the infrastructure to absorb even more visitors?
If not, consider leaving its exact location a mystery. Not having exact GPS coordinates will likely deter a lot of people from seeking it out in the first place.
7. Help others understand the environmental impact of their actions and offer alternatives
Use that epic shot from an outdoor landmark or historical site to raise awareness of environmental issues in the area. The idea is to juxtapose the beauty of the image with the problem at hand: plastics, trash, off-path destruction, feeding the animals, etc. Then, provide easy and viable alternatives to help travelers understand which behaviors help protect the environment and which ones degrade it.
A more extreme option: post a photo of what would have been a beautiful landscape or scene. That is, without all the trash lying around.
Many travelers are not aware of the fragility of the places they visit, especially national parks, historical sites or remote destinations which do not possess the infrastructure or resources to manage the additional trash, consumption and resource pressure which comes with increased visitor numbers.
For example, I always knew that single-use plastics and plastic water bottles were bad. However, our trip to Cambodia’s Koh Rong island earlier this year offered a wake-up call. The confluence of a storm and high tides from a super moon drew to the shore an ocean’s worth of garbage. For a couple of days, beaches were strewn with plastic bottles, cups, straws, plates and other random junk.
True, not all of this is the result of the tourism industry. But much of it was.
Since this experience, I’ve become more aware of my use of plastics and my contribution to the problem. Sure, I’ve been carrying a refillable water bottle for years now. But now I also try to do more — to carry and use reusable utensils, straws, chopsticks, coffee cups and fast-food containers. This alone makes me more conscious of what and how I consume.
Sharing your journey towards becoming more environmentally aware and savvy offers a natural way to involve others in your process. I’m always amazed by what we learn from our community, including the myriad ideas and tips our audience offers that we hadn’t previously considered.
8. Keep Your Money Local to Benefit the Community
In fact, a UNEP statistic from a few years ago highlighted that on average only $5 of every $100 spent on tourism in the developing world stays there. Even if that percentage has gone up in recent years, it still highlights a problem. There are a lot of opportunities in tourism for leakages where the money ends up elsewhere — whether that’s through foreign ownership, sourcing products and food from other areas, hiring foreign employees, or importing items from abroad.
But there are some ways to “follow the money” to try and ensure that it stays local and in the community. This includes supporting locally owned businesses when you travel in all the services or experiences you need. For example, eating at local restaurants that source their food in the area, staying at locally owned hotels and guest houses, buying souvenirs directly from artisans, hiring local guides who are from that community, and seeking out experiences with social enterprises that reinvest in the community. When it comes to choosing a tour company be sure to select one that is invested in the community and keeps their money local by working with locally-owned businesses.
By highlighting these types of spending decisions and behaviors it not only raises awareness in travelers of this issue and the need to ask questions of where their money is going, but it also supports local businesses and helps them grow. When we “spend local” and support businesses in the community this often leads to more engaging and fun travel experiences as we’re more connected to local culture and people.
9. Don’t break the law to get that perfect shot
This one’s preachy, I get it. It’s also sad that I feel compelled to include it.
Simple: don’t encourage others to break rules and laws by posting photos that required you to do so.
Barriers and designated paths are there for a reason. They are often erected for safety’s sake, or to contain and constraint the destruction of visitor footsteps.
Even if you might think your detour off-piste in the national park or your touching a protected statue doesn’t do any harm, imagine the potential impact of thousands of visitors doing the same each day.
All those footsteps and fingerprints leave their mark over time.
Finally, think safety. Consider the additional personal risk someone will take by ignoring the “do not enter” sign. Is it worth the potential danger to someone in your community hoping to snag the same shot?
10. Leave something on the table – don’t post
Consider not posting at all. I know this goes against the idea of sharing it all on social media.
The potential to shift a current through the influence of individual behaviors and choices is powerful and compounded. The micro actions of each of the individuals in our social media communities leads to macro impact, towards harm or good.
The direction of that collective impact, in part, is up to you.