Before I launch into this article, much like an otter sliding head-first down a muddy slope, I want to explain where the title comes from. It’s a direct quote from my boyfriend, uttered when we visited Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, and it led to quite a long conversation about what Instagram travel is, and how its grown. I’m going to state straight away that I don’t think that Instagram has ruined travel, but I think that it has fundamentally changed the way that some people take a trip – but, if you let it, it can completely ruin the whole experience of travel for you.
Let me explain.
Instagram travel, and doing it for the gram
Saying that Instagram travel can ruin a trip might sound quite weird coming from me; after all, I like to write articles detailing awesome Instagram locations in various cities. I’ve written guides for Amsterdam, the Amalfi Coast, Prague, and Florence… but, I like to hammer home the point that you shouldn’t be travelling just for the ‘gram. I love Instagram, and I love photography – travelling around a city and finding the most scenic spots is good fun! – but I’ve always been of the opinion that it shouldn’t be the only reason you visit a place.
More than I love photography, I love history and culture. Let’s face it: the majority of Instagrammable locations are the ones which are either super modern (think awesome street art, or anything in Dubai), or based in a location’s historic sites. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, Pura Lempuyang Temple. And that’s where I think Instagram has changed travel: instead of visiting a historic location and taking in the stories, the cultural significance, or religious meaning, it’s a Pokémon Go-style “got that one; on to the next!”
I always try to write my Instagram guides with an encouragement to take the shots, and get the beautiful photos… but then to put the phone or camera away for a while. Pull out a guidebook, and read the notes. Go on a tour.
Travelling for the ‘gram hurts no-one, but people engaging in just Instagram travel are missing out on wonderful stories and experiences. It only hurts their own trip. I want to show people how to use Instagram to enhance their trip! The revolution starts here, y’all!
What kind of Instagrammer are you?
The problem is that there’s two ways to use Instagram when you’re travelling. One is completely healthy. The other… yeah, not so much.
The first way is travelling, and happening to use and love Instagram. It’s not the main focus of what you do – you’re seeing those sights and trying that food! But you like to record the things you see and eat, and share them with your friends and followers. That is completely cool. That’s not Instagram travel; you just happen to use it to share the things you’re experiencing. That’s exactly what the app was designed for!
The other way is Instagram travel. The app isn’t used to share your travel experiences: it is the sole, only reason that you’re travelling. Where are you going? Who cares, as long as it’s instagrammable. Sure, it feels good when those likes come rolling in, but when you go home and someone pipes up with “how was Paris?”, do you really feel like you visited? Or was it just a series of photo stops?
Unfortunately, there seems to be an increasing amount of people who are doing the latter, and hurting themselves without realising it. When I was on Capri a few years ago, I remember a young woman marching up to the viewpoint at the Faraglioni rocks, turning her back to the view, and making a series of poses towards her camera-toting boyfriend. When she was done five minutes later (by which time a disgruntled queue of people wishing to see the view had formed), she went over to check the results, then immediately walked off. She didn’t even spend ten seconds looking at the view she’d spent so much time trying to perfectly capture.
When Instagram travel gets ugly
The worst thing about the toxic kind of Instagram travel is that it makes the whole experience somewhat hollow for the Instagrammer. The second worst thing is that it tars everyone with the same brush – and a stinky, sludgy brush it is too.
I know some wonderful Instagram influencers. Ladies who wear a floaty dress and have beautifully curated photos, but who genuinely love travel, and want to change the world for the better. People with massive hearts, who offer travel advice, body positivity, mental health help, or just photography tips, along with an inspirational photo that’ll make you want to throw all your belongings in a suitcase. These influencers are utter gems, and thoroughly good people.
However, if you pop topics such as “Instagram travel” or “travel influencers” into Google, you’ll see some quite disturbing related searches. “Instagram ruining tourism”… “influencers are annoying”…”I hate Instagram influencers”.
This ain’t good. At the same time, it’s understandable, because a minority of people use Instagram as an excuse to behave like horrible human beings.
Fisherman’s Bastion – how not to travel
Let’s use Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest as an example, because it’s what inspired this article. It’s a beautiful, neo-Gothic terrace which gives the most stunning views of the Danube River and the Parliament building opposite. It is also crawling with people taking photos of the view and of themselves – and I did exactly the same. It’s gorgeous; why not!
However. Before my boyfriend and I got to the bastion, we decided to grab a drink, so we stopped in a little bar just along the road from Fisherman’s Bastion and sat outside with some beers. There was a sign outside the door saying that use of the toilet was free for customers, but 30 forint for anyone else. In case your knowledge of Hungarian exchange rates is a tad rusty, that works out as 11 cents in US dollars. Not exactly breaking the bank.
Just as we’re about to leave, along comes a woman with her boyfriend, and she’s dressed to the nines. Her boyfriend is also carrying a slightly transparent shopping bag which has souvenirs in it, so they’ve clearly been shopping along the street between Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion; they haven’t come out without money. But she begs the bar owner to let her use the toilet; she swears that she doesn’t have any money. Can she have a tap water? Does that count as being a customer? The poor bar owner finally relents and waves her in, and she scampers inside – only to emerge a few minutes later in a new outfit. Okaaay.
My boyfriend and I pay our bill (genuinely, we tipped him extra to make up for the lost 30 forint), and walk along to Fisherman’s Bastion. Guess who’s there? Yup, our lady and her boyfriend, climbing over a roped-off section of the Bastion so she can get a photo of herself with no-one else in the way. After a little while they climb back, check her phone for the next location… and they’re gone. The whole thing was done in minutes.
This is even sadder when you realise that Matthias Church, which is possibly one of the most visually stunning buildings I’ve ever been in, is literally within spitting distance of Fisherman’s Bastion. She wasn’t remotely interested; it was just ticking a box on a list, whilst simultaneously trespassing and stiffing the locals.
Too much, too fast
Using Instagram as your primary reason to travel seems to encourage a mentality of doing everything quickly. There’s no time to linger in a location: you need to get as many photos from as many spots as possible. There’s no need to read up on a place, other than how to get there. History doesn’t matter. Even the city itself doesn’t matter, after a while – it just becomes a series of Instagrammable backdrops.
If that’s all that someone wants from travel, then that’s fine. But the world has so much more to offer!!
Just seeing the sights and learning nothing about them, barely even spending time in them, doesn’t really count as visiting a place. For example, when I visited Esztergom in Hungary, I went on a bus tour. In order for us to get some lovely shots of the massive church there, our bus obligingly drove us across a bridge into Slovakia, and parked up on the riverbank.
Does that count as visiting a country? Had I “done” Slovakia? I’d say a massive “hell no!” I was in a Slovakian car park for all of five minutes; that’s not visiting a place. I didn’t even know the name of the town I was in. But sometimes, Instagrammable locations seem to get treated the same way.
Budapest is a great example, because there are so many important, thought-provoking places to visit. The House of Terror, which is a memorial to the victims of both the fascist and communist regimes, many of whom were tortured and killed there. The Hospital In The Rock, which is a decommissioned nuclear bunker, containing accurate reconstructions of Budapest during the war, and displays on the horrors of nuclear war. Heroes Square, with the memorial stone.
I know full well that there will be visitors to Budapest who only visit Fisherman’s Bastion, the Liberty Statue, and Andrássy Avenue. The thought of that makes me quite sad, because they really are missing out on so much.
Instagram ruining nature
It’s also difficult to ignore the effect that Instagram travel has had on some of the world’s most stunning natural sights. Some of them are so fragile, so precious, that we may never get them back.
From baby dolphins being killed by selfies, to rare poppy blooms being trampled, to the closure of Maya Bay in Thailand, nature is getting a rough deal from the overtourism which comes with Instagram travel. These are habitats being destroyed by unthinking feet, damage which will last for years and years. And freakin’ baby dolphins dying. Is having an awesome Instagram feed really worth that?
I don’t think it’s people being uncaring; I think it’s a case of people being unthinking. It can be hard to see the damage that you’re doing, when you just see your little contribution. It’s easy to excuse yourself when you see crowds of people, and think “if all those guys are walking on the flowers, then it must be okay”. But we really need to start being a bit smarter about this, and taking the time to research and consider.
How to use Instagram to make travel better for everyone!
Well, this has been a lot of doom and gloom, hasn’t it? There’s good news though: not only is it possible to use Instagram to enhance your own travels, but we can all use it to make it better for everyone. Every single person can travel better, learn more, and be a more responsible world citizen by using Instagram. It’s true.
It’s a pretty simple idea to put into practise, too. If Instagram is changing the way we travel, let’s flip it around and change the way that we use Instagram when we’re travelling.
Use it to capture the scene that you’re seeing, and to inspire your followers. Let’s say that you’re visiting Prague. You find yourself a guide to Instagrammable spots in Prague (preferably mine!), and mark out those places on your map as things that you really want to see. But what’s drawn you to those places? Are they historic? Is there a local story attached to it? Even if it’s street art, such as Prague’s Lennon Wall, what’s the significance behind it? Why is it called the Lennon Wall?
Read up on those places before you visit them. You’ll be amazed at how much more you get out of your visit with that extra layer of understanding, like you’re in on a local secret. You’ll find that photographing them becomes much easier too, because you know what to look for. You can really capture local life, and help your followers to gain a better understanding of your travels in turn. I produced this guide to Fisherman’s Bastion purely because I wanted to share some of the cultural meaning that’s hidden in the architecture – it’s so much more fascinating when you know it!
By all means wear an awesome outfit and take many selfies, but use the comment section to inform and inspire. Share some of those interesting stories you learnt when you were reading up on the location. Also, diversify what you photograph, and don’t just got to the same hotspots as everyone else. Explore a place, and photograph what inspires you. We can’t let wonderful locations become a series of photographic pit stops; they’re better than that.
We can also try much harder when it comes to natural sites. Do a simple Google search before you visit – are there environmental concerns about the place you’re visiting? Is there a way you can minimize your impact, or is there an alternative site which is less-visited? We can’t keep using Instagram as an excuse to abuse fragile ecosystems.
Changing Instagram travel
I just want to stress again that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with travelling purely for Instagram, especially if you’re responsible about it. Instagram influencers get a lot of undeserved hate, in my opinion, when it hurts absolutely no-one. As long as you’re not hurting the locals or the location you’re visiting, then you’re totally good to travel purely for the photographic rewards. Heck, at least you’re travelling and experiencing something different. After all, travel should be fun, and Instagram is fun. Who doesn’t want to take amazing landscapes? Who doesn’t want to dress up and look fabulous?
But do consider enhancing your experience by changing the way you use Instagram – you can become someone who inspires and educates. Don’t settle for being someone who posts a bunch of samey photos acquired by hopping over barriers. I’ll continue to produce my beloved Instagram guides, and include the history of a place, with encouragement to learn more about them.
We just need to be more responsible about Instagram travel, and how we use the app in order to portray our journeys. Experience travel to the fullest – turning it into a series of snapshots only diminishes the beauty of your memories.