Cultural Comment

#Insta-crushed: Exploration and travel in the age of Instagram and selfie-mongers

I have lived on the Colorado Plateau for all but four of my 49 years. The Colorado Plateau is home to some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring places on the planet, and during my 49 years exploring it I’ve seen many places transformed by tourism, in varying forms and volumes. But never so much, so quickly and so negatively as from the irreverent masses of Instagram tourists that are now arriving in an endless stream of cars and buses.

I live in Page, Arizona. Several world-famous travel destinations you’ve certainly heard of – Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and Lake Powell – are each less than 10 minutes from my front door. During the 14 years I’ve lived in Page, I’ve witnessed firsthand an exponential rise in tourism. The millions of tourists that pass through Page have had a profound and positive affect on the city’s economy, but the sheer number of them are having a detrimental, negative effect on the land itself.

Most of the recent increases in tourism has been driven by Facebook and Instagram. Horseshoe Bend, located just three miles away from my house, is the perfect example of Facebook’s and Instagram’s influence on tourism and the affects and impacts those tourists have on the locations they visit.

When I moved to Page in 2005 few people outside of Page knew of Horseshoe Bend. I first visited it that same year with a small group of friends on a picnic. We carried our lunches to the overlook and sat on some rocks along the edge of the overlook and ate in awe at the natural beauty before us. In the 90 minutes we were there only two other people visited the site.
Then came Facebook and Instagram.

Prior to social media, Horseshoe Bend had appeared in the occasional travel magazine, but with the arrival of Facebook, pictures of Horseshoe Bend began popping up on computer screens around the world. And the phenomenon only increased when Instagram became popular. Nowadays, Horseshoe Bend is visited by more than 3,000 people every single day. In recent years, the city of Page, Arizona, has added bathrooms, an ADA-accessible path, a rail along the edge of the overlook, expanded and paved the parking lot and added three tollbooths to deal with the explosion in tourism.

I revisited Horseshoe Bend three weeks ago and found a steady stream of cars, vans and buses entering the parking lot and a steady stream of tourists from around the world getting out of those vehicles and walking to the overlook. I did the same, and spent an hour sitting at the edge of the cliff overlooking a beautiful bend in the Colorado River, while simultaneously observing my fellow sightseers. A good number of the visitors took some pictures, then found a comfortable spot along the edge of the cliff, as I had done, and enjoyed the view, and the spring evening’s pleasant breeze. But the vast majority of the people came to the scenic overlook, took some selfies and left, staying less than five minutes.

I have heard reports of the same thing happening at national parks and scenic destinations all across America, and the sheer numbers of Instagram tourists are having a noticeably negative toll on the land.

Not only is the presence of so many people taking a negative toll on the land, their large numbers – and  their seeming lack of reverence or respect for the places they’re visiting – is also ruining the experience for some of the other visitors who are there to connect with the place on an authentic, deeper level.

For many people, a trip into the wilderness or nature is a powerful experience. They have discovered that a trip into nature can rejuvenate their weary souls and calm their troubled minds. For many, a trip into a wild place is often a time for reflection and introspection. For some, a visit to a secluded, natural space is a spiritual experience.

I’m one of those people.

Of course, before we had Facebook and Instagram, wild, wonderful, secret places got discovered and news of them got shared, sometimes through travel magazines, but more often through simple word of mouth. When we discover an amazing little gem-of-a-place out in the woods or the desert it’s only natural to tell our friends about it. But it’s also human nature to keep such awesome places secret. If we’re going to tell our friends about the amazing new place, it will be with friends who share our sense of wonder and reverence; people we can trust to preserve the qualities that make the place special.

But the Instagram hordes don’t seem to feel that way. They don’t seem to possess that sense of wonder and reverence for the outdoors and special places they visit, and they don’t seem to possess a desire for preserving the place, or what it is that makes the place special.

A recent example of the Instagrammers disregard for the sacred and wonderful came earlier this year when they arrived en masse to the town of Lake Elsinore, California, a place that experienced an amazing wildflower bloom. They came in such large numbers – after Instagram influencers encouraged them to visit – that entire hillsides of wildflowers were trampled under the frenzy of Instagrammers taking photos.

And many of us remember seeing reports from a couple years ago when a group of beach-goers somehow caught a baby dolphin and they then passed the poor thing around taking selfies with it until it died.

The Instagram hordes seem to have no qualms destroying and trampling life as long as they get that selfie.

The Instagram selfie-mongers have turned travel into a sickness. A scourge of one-upmanship. A dark spirit of been there, done that. They’ve turned traveling into a contest. This is a group that is its own paparazzi, trampling beautiful, sacred places to dust just to use them as a background to add some shine to their shallow lives.

Taken as a whole, the Instagram selfie-mongers seem to be a group with little appreciation for the authentic, for the special, for the sacred. They are entirely missing the point of travel. They seem to have no interest forming a connection with a place or its people, or its culture. They show no interest in genuinely engaging or interacting with it. They scratch “Visit Grand Canyon” off their bucket list with the same disregard I scratch “apples” off my grocery list. Their presence feels exploitative. It feels like they are mining the experience to later – as soon as they get back to Wi-Fi – be turned into Instagram likes.

This is a group that gives no indication that they care about leave no trace ethics. They don’t seem interested in a wilderness experience. They don’t seem interested in solitude, or the other sacraments of communing with nature. This is a group that loves to portray the image, the veneer, of being interested in the outdoors, but their actions tell a different story.

Back in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, we would occasionally see news reports about America’s favorite places being “loved to death” accompanied by images of travelers flocking to Yosemite meadows, Grand Canyon vistas, or Yellowstone campgrounds. But that can’t be said about the Instagram hordes. It certainly cannot be said that they’re loving it to death. They don’t love it. They don’t care about it at all. They’re just selfie-ing it to death.

So, because of all these characteristics, one of the major complaints people have against the hordes of Instagram tourists flocking to a beautiful, natural site is that they’re ruining the experience for those people who are there because want to have an authentic travel experience, a genuine connection with the wild world. That’s bad enough, but many places in the world – and the creatures that inhabit them – are simply too fragile and important for this level of trampling to occur. Places such as once-hidden and little-known Native American ruins. This group that cares nothing for sacred places thinks nothing of pocketing some potsherds and carving their name in the walls before they leave.

And can you imagine hordes of heartless, conscience-less Instagrammers descending on Michoacán, Mexico, the place where Monarch butterflies stay during the winter? The butterflies and their habitat would be crushed. An entire species destroyed just so some narcissists could get some selfies.

I hate to complain about a problem without offering a solution, but I don’t know if this problem has a solution. At least for the time being, the trend of the Instagram Tourist seems to have entered a kind of feedback loop. People see photos of famous or scenic places and they want to visit them. And they do and they share their photos on Facebook and Instagram, thus inspiring (that feels like the wrong word) and driving the next wave of Instagram tourists to visit the once-secret, gem-of-a-place. And so on and so on like waves visiting a beach.

And with more and more people from around the globe entering the middle class and finding themselves with disposable income, more and more people will be joining the next crushing horde of Instagram-like mongers.

I just want to end with this simple plea. If you’re a traveler visiting our area, or any other special place in the world, please be mindful of your presence and your impact. Please tread lightly while you’re visiting our backyard and treat all other humans, animals, plants and insects you encounter with respect.


More In Opinion