Social media has completely changed our lives, both positively and negatively. On the one hand, it brings us closer together and allows us to interact in more meaningful ways. But on the other hand, it encourages superficiality.
Letting social media remain on the surface has far reaching consequences, one of which is the perpetuation of harmful tourism. When we seek out that “perfect” photo, we pay much less attention to the impact of our actions. But does that mean social media will be the death of sustainable tourism? Maybe, maybe not. It’s up to us to decide.
The island of Bohol, one of the smaller island provinces of the Philippines, is a classic example of social media hindering the growth of sustainable tourism. The pristine natural beauty of the island combined with its unique flora and fauna has people flocking from all over the world.
One particularly exciting tourist activity in the Philippines is swimming with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. For around 20 USD, travelers can catch a boat and enjoy this “once in a lifetime” activity.
It’s not hard to see the impact of social media here. To market the attraction, tour operators will show amazing photos of people underwater just a few feet away from these gigantic marine creatures. For someone interested in impressing their friends with a killer Instagram photo, this is a prime opportunity
Yet there are some serious issues at play. Whale sharks are migratory. To see them in their natural habitat while in the Philippines, you need to wait for the right time of year, and then travel a ways offshore to intersect their route. To see these fish correctly is hard and often expensive.
However, on Bohol, and in many other places in the Philippines, this fact is forgotten. Sharks are fed to help keep them in one place, and their constant interaction with humans has lots of negative consequences.
This exploitation of natural environments and unique cultures is present all over the world, but who’s really to blame? Dubious tour operators are certainly responsible, but to what extent does our selfie-crazed culture justify these actions?
Money is obviously a huge motivation. Locals see this practice as a viable source of income. And they certainly have the right to use their resources to improve their lives.
But this is the danger of social media in tourism. As we seek out exciting photos simply to show to the world what we’ve done, we become much less concerned with the impacts of our actions. To make sustainable tourism the norm, we must work to curb selfie-seeking travel.
Social media, though, is neutral. How we use it determines its effect, meaning we have the power to ensure a positive impact.
One of the best things about social media is that it has broken down the monopoly of information. Throughout the broadcast era, we’ve depended on outside entities to create and tell stories. But social media has blown up this paradigm. User-generated content is abundant, but most importantly, it’s seen as the most authentic, and therefore the most trusted, content on the web.
People travel to have experiences. A trip to see the whale sharks is indeed an experience, but it’s one with harmful environmental effects. Its story is dark.
This, though, is really a marketing problem. Exciting photos are dominating the conversation because we let them. The compelling stories we have to tell don’t always make it out into the world. So to change the narrative, the sustainable tourism industry as a whole needs to find better ways to tell their stories. Blogs and social media are great ways to do this.
And when you encourage people to use social media to talk about your sustainable project—typically by offering them some sort of incentive (a Facebook post in exchange for a small discount, for example)–you’re creating user-generated content. More authentic and effective, this type of content also turns social media into a powerful tool for promoting sustainable tourism, not an obstacle.
Leveraging review platforms such as TripAdvisor is also essential. These tools are having more and more influence over the decisions people make. It’s important to use them to demonstrate the experiences people can have when engaging with sustainable tourism.
Choosing our destiny
Whether or not we Instagram our way to total destruction ultimately depends on us. Social media and travel are not going away, and both will continue to grow. Making use of the storytelling and marketing power that comes from social media will be essential to creating economically, socially and environmentally sustainable tourism industries. And from there, we can harness this industry as a powerful engine for progress and change.