It’s summertime, pack your bags! I hope that (like me) you’re enjoying some holidays right now. But I bet that (like me), you won’t completely unplug from social media.
You’re maybe sipping a cocktail, feeling safe behind the screen of your smartphone. But what if I told you that a simple click, a simple photo posted on Instagram could, as a butterfly effect, be responsible for the death of an animal? What if it could lead to the destruction of natural sites, or to the displacement of people who lived there for thousands of years?
Let’s think about it for a moment : how our actions in the virtual world impact the real one?
How a click can kill a rhinoceros
I’ve always been a mountain lover, passionate about trekking. This sport teaches you a lot : the sense of endeavour, the resistance to pain, challenging yourself, asceticism somehow, or let’s say frugality. This activity, by nature, requires you to be super aware of your environment, so that you avoid its dangers but also you appreciate its beauty. The rule that every hiker is supposed to apply is “leave no trace”: that is to say, leave no ecological footprint. It means taking your waste (and sometimes others’) with you when you leave, avoid spilling chemical shampoo in a source of drinking water, don’t pitch your tent anywhere, or light a fire and so on.
Let’s not mention the basic good sense, like don’t go bother wild animals, don’t make the squirrel go nuts and don’t wake up the marmots.
There’s a lake in the French Alps that I particularly like, rather difficult to reach, landlocked and its water so pure that you can see the bottom. Over the years, from a place known only by the locals and a few passionate trekkers, it has become a tourist attraction. The cars parked at the foot of the mountain are dozens, the trail have expanded due to the passage of so many people per day, damaging trees etc. The lake itself has become a picnic spot for families and groups of teens. Greasy papers and empty bottles of beer everywhere on the floor.
In the same way, the New York Times published an article about the Delta Lak (in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming) which attendance increased from 3 or 4 hikers a day to 145 daily passages on average. Why? Because one day, some “travel bloggers” took pictures and geotagged it. Since then, people have flocked there to take engagement selfies or portraits to promote some fitness products.
We must understand that our likes don’t stay virtual. The consequences affect the real world.
Here, I took the example of natural sites, but the issue touches all living systems, from animals to humans.
Let’s say you are on an excursion, in a far away country. You see a rhinoceros, what do you do? Well, you grab your iPhone and proudly share the shot, because come on! You don’t come across such an animal at the metro station every morning. The problem is, by geotagging your photo, you give all the necessary informations to poachers. No need for them to go tracking for days, you hand them the pachyderm’s head on a plate.
Even without geolocation on your photo, depending on the settings of your phone, it can automatically contain GPS data about where it was taken.
Therefore indirectly, and without wanting it of course, a simple click led to the death of an animal.
Each of our actions has consequences in the universe, and what is true in general is even more true in our digital times, where everything we do, sometimes innocently, is no longer harmless because it’s multiplied on a worldwide scale.
As I said, protected species are not the only victims of our quest for fifteen minutes of fame on social medias. Humans are too. Take the example of Kenya and Tanzania. The purpose of a safari is to take pictures, if not, what’s the point. The development of this kind of tourism, plus the luxury hunting (that is to say, paying for the Lion King’s head, and posing next to it on Facebook) is literally pushing the Maasai off their land, and threatening their survival.
This is just one example, this issue occurs in many other parts of the world.
We are all influencers
Today, in general, we travel more (and further) than the previous generations. The tourism industry has become an incredibly huge market. Traveling is now part of our lifestyle. Before, globe-trotters were seen as adventurers, now almost all Tinder profiles pics are selfies in front of Machu Picchu, Big Ben and the Great Wall of China.
What is the influence of Instagram in this “trivialization” of long distance travels, the question is open. Maybe the new saying “Would you still visit this place if you could not share it on Instagram?” is the beginning of an answer. The social network is literally the 2.0 version of the slide sessions our parents used to impose us when they returned from their cruise on the Nile. Today, Instagram documents each and every one of our journeys, in a tenfold and immediate way. The posted pictures are a huge mass of data, that we upload on the internet without even being aware of it.
Let’s be honest : as humans, we behave like sheeps, we have the tendency to be dumb followers. We don’t ask ourselves whether a printed tourist guide (which is two years late, obviously) is relevant or not. Does it tell us to visit this or that, we don’t think twice, we go en masse, and we all leave with the same picture. Try searching “#towerofPisa” on Instagram, it’s both funny and cringy to look at.
We share informations about places on earth, vacation spots that look like heaven, but in the context of mass tourism, through a simple click, this place that was unknown (and that was its charm) will suddenly be colonized.
We all have a share of responsibility. Whether we have a small circle of friends or lots of followers on social media, it doesn’t really matter (especially with the latest test version of Instagram, that hides the number of likes.) By domino effect, our geotagged holiday pictures can encourage anyone to visit a place, and they will also post a picture of it and so on… The phenomenon of virality is no longer to explain.
Of course, influencers are a hundred times more concerned by these ethical issues. From the moment our world gave them real power, as a consequence they have to measure their responsibility. It’s like this famous quote from the movie Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
I deeply believe fashion influencers have a huge responsibility when it comes to our body image, and I believe the same logic applies to travel influencers. They have a responsibility toward the environment. Influencer is a job like any other, therefore it requires a professional ethic.
When you travel around the world to show people new places, sometimes you must also keep some spots secret.
Or you can show it without sharing the geolocation. As an influencer, brands and companies pay you, not places.
In the era of mass tourism, it is more than urgent to preserve the environment and to do so, some suggest a very simple solution : they don’t tag the places when it’s better not to, and they use the hashtag “#nogeotag” to raise awareness among their audience.
A traveler’s guide to good practice
As a passionate traveler, I follow many pages on the subject. I see more and more new ethical practices, for example: an eco-hotel in Bali doesn’t give information on its precise location. The rooms are cozy huts up in ancient trees, like bird’s nests. The hotel won’t risk getting more customers than it’s sustainable for the local ecosystem.
To discover the place, you have to tag yourself on their photos and then follow the steps of a digital maze. This effort already lost half of the candidates along the way. Therefore, around the concern of preserving the environment, a whole new marketing strategy emerges.
Hosting fewer visitors allows you to build a special relationship with them.
The selected customers feel catered, and even more: they know they are “chosen” and lucky. The scarcity of the service sets the price higher, and the idea that tomorrow’s luxury will be tranquility has never been so true.
In the same way, some places are now limiting the number of visitors, to avoid degrading places. This is the case for Machu Picchu : from a little less than 400 000 visitors, it has increased to 1.4 million in the last twenty years. Needless to say, the Incas didn’t designed the infrastructure for so much visitors. The government has reduced access to the site to twice a day, and limited the number of tickets for the trip to a few thousands.
The paradise island of Fernando de Noronha, off brazilian coasts, allows only a few hundreds of tourists at a time. The purpose is to preserve the ecosystem, the beauty of the beaches and the quality of life for its 3000 inhabitants. To get there, you have to book through authorized agencies, and pay a fee for the maintenance of the sites. But after all, isn’t it that what we want? When we dream of traveling to the end of the world, we imagine private beaches, white sand, crystal clear sea and silence. No cigarette butts everywhere and fights over the last spot for your parasol.
In the same logic, Bhutan imposes a very expensive daily tourist tax (around 200 dollars per day and per head), to preserve its environment and its culture from what we call now overtourism.
What if someday, traveling became too polluting and too expensive?
We know that air traffic (constantly growing) generates outrageous pollution. We also know that the fleet (a hundred ships) of a famous cruise company produce more sulfur oxide by itself than all the cars circulating in the European Union…
In this context, we may think that it would be better, why not, to travel while staying at home. Through a virtual reality headset, for example. There are many advantages: no queues, a 360 ° view, the possibility to zoom in on the details of the Sistine Chapel, no one to annoy you by taking photos in front of it, no bad weather, no risk of falling from the mountain to take THE (last) selfie of your life.
Who knows if some cities, in the best interest of their historical monuments, will decide to close them to tourists, and allow only visits through VR.
Before going that far, we can begin to understand that the barrier between the real and the virtual world is thinner and thinner.
If we have an ecological awareness, let us also realize that our actions on Instagram and other social media have real consequences : they can be measured in displacement of populations, in smothered turtles and in ravaged creeks.