Day 6

How millions of selfie-seeking Instagrammers are ruining the world's most beautiful places

A hill of daffodils in California closed in July after gaining popularity on social media. A series of ocean pools in New Zealand blocked visitors because people littered, urinated and exuded their sunscreen in them. Travel writer Rosie Spinks says that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The phenomenon points to a bigger problem with the tourism industry, says tourism writer Rosie Spinks

Visitors take a selfie at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Lancaster, California. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
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If you look up Daffodil Hill on Instagram, there's a seemingly endless grid of people posing among bright yellow flowers.

But the amateur photographers flocking to the hill became a problem — it became too popular.

The family that runs the hill announced on Facebook in late July that it was closing down indefinitely, because the area just couldn't handle so many people.

There have been several other beautiful spots that had to stop allowing people in after they went viral online and too many people showed up.

In New Zealand, the Matapouri mermaid pools — which are sacred to the Indigenous Maori population — became a popular place for Instagrammers. And the locals started seeing issues.

"There's rubbish that's left through the bushes in our sacred spaces, human excrement, sanitary waste," Aperahama Edwards, a local Maori man who represents the Matapouri area, told RNZ News in New Zealand.

Writer Rosie Spinks has documented the toll Instagram-fueled over-tourism has taken on destinations. She told Day 6 guest host Nana Aba Duncan that Instagram is just one part of the problem.

Below is part of that conversation.

What is it about these places that makes them so Instagram-able?

What traffics well on Instagram when it comes to tourism is definitely places that can almost serve as a backdrop.

They tend to not be very complex things to photograph. They tend to be things that if you have limited to no photography skills, you can still take a stunning picture of them.

I think of these viral offline moments as places that turn into memes. It's something that I think is quite distinct to our time.

Sure, we had the Eiffel Tower and Trafalgar Square and other prominent iconic tourist attractions before, but this desire to capture them in a digital way and superimpose ourselves on those attractions is a really different thing.

And how much is this over-tourism really caused by Instagram? 

I'll be honest, I don't think it's fair to say it's caused by Instagram. I think these kinds of Instagram phenomena are a manifestation of this global trend of over-tourism, but over-tourism has a lot more fundamental driving forces.

The reason why people are so motivated and even able to go fly across the world to take a picture in a canyon or a pristine pool or a poppy field, the reasons people can do that are different than they were 20 years ago.

Air travel is much cheaper. We have much more online tools, be it AirBnB or online travel agents like Booking.com. It's much more easy to book a trip.

And just generally the role that travel plays in our lives I think has changed. It sounds trite to say it because it's said way too often, but the whole idea that millennials value experiences over things, I think we really see that play out here.

Where once maybe 20 to 30 years ago, someone in their late 20s, early 30s would be going to buy a house or a car, those things are less attainable now.

So we spend that money maybe on more frequent trips and we are more motivated to capture those trips on our phone.

How does [geo-tagging] fit into this picture?

If Instagram is to blame for anything, it might be that.

It just makes it really easy to figure out where to go. You don't need a guidebook, you don't need local knowledge, you don't need a local to tip you off to find a really cute bar or what have you.

You can type in your phone: Paris, France, [and] see where people are Instagramming from, see a photo of something that you think looks great, and if that photo is geo-tagged, then you have a literal map to help you get there.

How do you think we can do this better?

I'm reluctant to put the onus on the traveller when it comes to solving a problem as complex as over-tourism.

I think on the individual level, of course you should exercise common sense and common courtesy. ... You hear awful stories of urinating in public, and just things that in any context are inappropriate. So of course, don't do those things.

But lots of money is being made, and the people who are benefiting from that revenue do have a responsibility to make sure tourism is managed in a responsible way.

What do you think the tourism industry needs to do?

An interesting shift is happening at the moment from destination marketing to destination management.

Historically, there would be these destination marketing organizations that would get money from, maybe, a hotel tax or from the government, to market a place to get people to go there.

And those organizations are now in a position where they can't just be marketers.

They have to also figure out how to manage these places properly, make sure this one neighborhood or this one landmark isn't getting way too many people at this time of year, make sure there's appropriate municipal services, trash collection, sanitation — all these things are impacted by lots of visitors.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Rosie Spinks, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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