Responsible Instagramming in the age of irresponsible Travel

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Of late, I’ve been feeling insanely selfish and protective of many of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit over the past few years. Stunning locations that are close to my heart, mountains that showed me the life-saving power of wilderness, places where I’ve made warm memories and close friends. Places that are now slowly being dragged out of the safety of anonymity, ritually drowning in litter, noise and Insta-fame.


I just did a quick Google search on “Instagram ruining places” to find the search pages filled with never ending articles and stories of people being stupid for the sake of likes on the current darling of social media platforms. It is clear Instagram is here to stay and it is also clear Instagram is ruining places. Take New Zealand’s Wanaka Tree or Norway’s Trolltunga or Greece’s Santorini Sunset Point or Sweden’s Broccoli Tree among many others. All these places hit their peak popularity on Instagram and have already paid the price for being Insta-famous.

This new medium to show off perfect lives, score brownie points for daredevilry and brag about how clued in one is to the current zeitgeist of being an “intrepid explorer”, is coming at a great cost. Not only are our beautiful places are being lost to irresponsible tourism, lives are also being lost in the process. I cannot dictate how much one should be invested in their vanity but what I’m really concerned about is the environmental cost of this new obsession.

Closer to home, I can offer Ladakh’s Chadar trek, Maharashtra’s many dizzying fort hikes in Sahyadris, Himachal’s Jibhi as examples of places “discovered” on Instagram that are now facing the unmitigated wrath of the masses. If the rest of the world is on one level, India is on another level altogether when it comes to our population and the mind-boggling potential we have in unleashing swift destruction of the places we love.

It is unprecedented, the amount of reach each one of us on Instagram has, going well beyond the circle of family and friends as it used to be earlier. Even with blogging and other social media platforms prior to Instagram, the potential to reach vast crowds was negligible for most. Today, every one is an influencer. So I’m going to invoke the cliché here and say with great power comes great responsibility.

Here are three suggestions on how we can Instagram responsibly going further and avoid ruining our secret places. 

1. Don't share exact locations, share the larger region instead
Do you remember how special it felt to discover a great secret spot and take your friends or family there on your next visit, only to find it inundated with litter and obnoxious tourists? Yeah, none of us want that feeling. Keep such secrets to yourself and your trusted circle. Information in a close-knitted group spreads far more organically (and responsibly) than say, through unchecked popularity on Instagram. Especially when it comes to nature and outdoors, tricky locations, and sensitive nooks and corners that are not meant or ready for tourists, sharing the larger region is far more conducive to keeping places pristine. Besides, the old fashioned way of roughing it out and finding a secret spot is way more fulfilling than rushing to a famous location only to take a gazillion photos of you looking into far distance. Trust me! So the next time you find a great waterfall in Vashisht, do us all a favor and set the location as Himachal Pradesh at best and Manali at worst (special points if you tag the location as PLANET EARTH as few have already). If we are serious enough to get there, we’ll ask you for more details or we’ll deploy all our sleuthing skills. I think we can all agree that losing some likes by giving up geotagging is way better than losing a place altogether.

2. Don't encourage irresponsible behavior on social media
Did you know that out of all countries, India recorded highest number of selfie deaths recently? Last year, during the hiking season I saw so many irresponsible, dangerous photos of people sitting on precarious cliff edges that it made me sit up in fear. Not only do such photos pose a great risk to those involved, the enormous amplification of Instagram posts instigates others to follow such stupidity creating a vicious cycle that’s only a harbinger of avoidable death. Social media pushing people to death is not new. My blood boils when I see videos of people dunking in the freezing waters of Chadar. There’s no glory in a mindless act of machismo as social media may have them fooled.

The problem here again is in context. I’m not saying one cannot dunk in freezing waters or climb a sheer rock face without any support. But seeing a random bunch of tourists who could potentially die from jumping into cold water is completely different from seeing a trained athlete pushing their limits with sufficient preparation. Watching stunts performed by professionals can be thrilling but unqualified social media fame seekers can set dangerous precedents. For my part, I have stopped engaging with such Instagram posts that display useless daredevilry. I cannot dictate what others should do for their own safety but I can surely choose not to reward such behavior.

3. Talk about responsible tourism to raise awareness
The thing with social media is that it is a double-edged sword. Instagram’s crazy amplification may be a Pandora’s box but we can also use it to our advantage. Anyone and everyone is an influencer here. Even at the risk of sounding like an agony aunt, I’ve been vocal about issues that are close to my heart. If you’ve been following my Instagram stories, you know I talk about trekking safety, ecological concerns of mindless commercialization, rampant littering and unruly outdoor etiquette all the time.

Instagram is a great place to have conversations on various topics and to source a wide range of views. Being aware of the issues and their implications isn’t enough anymore, especially with the advent of crass commercialization and overtourism. Our feeds don’t have to be always pretty and happy. We can and we should call out bad tourism practices and trends. I am not a supporter of aggressive Internet activism but taking a stand when necessary, and subtle but persistent discourse of an ideology can definitely work over a period of time. So talk and raise awareness about issues close to your heart. Even if one person swears off plastic or decides to dispose their garbage properly or does not resort to vandalism of heritage structures or leaves the overburdened destinations in search of new lands, it will be a dent in the ocean of helplessness we’re all floating in currently.

***

You must be thinking it’s rich of me to ask not to share stories of beautiful places and crazy adventures while I write about very such places as a way of living. I know what you mean; it’s a conundrum I’ve been struggling with for a very long time – to tell or not to tell. But it ultimately comes down to the fact that I cannot make a decision on behalf on the rest of the humanity – I cannot decide who’s good crowd and who’s bad. I cannot make a decision on behalf of the locals who want to enjoy the economic benefits of tourism. I cannot decide what’s the right amount of risk and where it is okay to push the limits. I cannot decide where that fine line between stupidity and greatness should be drawn. The key here is in the context. On a blog or a magazine story I can give the full background, expound on the sensitive nature of the place and offer any advisories if required. A story will not go viral without context and will not inspire vanity or stupidity as a single Instagram post can. And without these stories that we’ve been told for centuries, none of us would’ve been travelling today. The least we can do is assume some responsibility in wielding the power we’ve been given and take a long, hard look at the narrative we want to propagate.

What are your thoughts on responsible Instagramming?
Share your top tips in the comments below!
Related articles for further reading on this:
[Longread] Loved to Death: How Instagram Is Destroying Our Natural Wonders
On NPR : Instagram Crowds May Be Ruining Nature
On Outside: Is Instagram Ruining the Great Outdoors?
On Natgeo Travel: How Instagram Is Changing Travel
7 travel destinations fuelled by Instagram and social media, that have gotten too popular for their own good
Is Your Instagram Destroying The Environment?

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6 comments

  1. This had to be said. Context is very important. Tagging a secret hideout with a jaw dropping picture is a recipe for destruction later to arrive there. I've seen that happening up-close in my hometown itself. Also, thoughts here echo with an article by Carrie MIller on natgeo: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/travel-interests/arts-and-culture/how-instagram-is-changing-travel/

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    1. Absolutely! With such a huge population, the odds are stacked against us unfortunately when it comes to not destroying places. I've read that article, makes a good case for how Instagram is a behemoth that cannot be ignored anymore. It's linked in my post too. :)

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  2. Sharing this with my friends :)

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