The World According to Instagram

Instagram now has over one billion users. That’s roughly three times the population of the entire United States, sharing and liking photos and videos. Not exactly a well-kept secret, but I think most people underestimate just how massive the “Instagram effect” can be. Especially when it comes to discovering new trends. Instagram influences the way we dress, the things we buy, and the food we eat. But what about travel? How has Instagram changed the way we travel?

Much has been said about the scourge of selfie sticks, especially their prevalence at tourist sites, but posing for photos while on vacation is not exactly a new phenomenon. After all, isn’t that what people have been doing in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa for generations? They needed the help of a stranger to click the shutter, but the idea was the same.


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With the advent of digital cameras and smart phones, we’ve gone from snapping a few souvenir Polaroids to full on photo shoots. I’m guilty of it myself, of course. I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos on my travels over the past few years. Most of the time I’m behind the lens, rather than in front of it, but that’s still a lot of time spent capturing — rather than being in — the moment.
It’s in those moments that I find myself wondering, is this really why we travel? To stand in line with a bunch of other tourists so we can take a picture in front of some famous building? Wasting our precious minutes waiting for that perfect moment when we can capture the scene in a way that hides all of the other tourists?


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For many millennials and teenagers, we are no longer traveling to experience a place, and then pausing for a photo to capture that experience. Instead, we are traveling to a destination specifically so that we can take photos and then share them on social media to build our “personal brands”.  Instagram also serves as #inspo (inspiration) for deciding which places to visit and which photos to recreate when we get there.
This has, in effect, created a new version of the Grand Tour. A well-trodden path of the most Insta-worthy backdrops spanning from Park Guell in Barcelona to the Gates of Heaven in Bali. (While you’re in Bali, make sure to also get a photo sitting on a swing over the water at sunset, and another one overlooking the beach on nearby Nusa Penida.)


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All of this leads me to wonder what kind of an effect is Instagram having on those places. Especially the smaller towns and less developed countries. As much as the residents of Barcelona complain about over tourism and the impact that it is having on the culture and affordability of their city, at least they have some capacity to absorb the influx.
Even in the American West, a land known for its great open spaces, some spots are getting quite crowded, as Sophie Weiss points out, “With the advent of location sharing and travel blogging, lesser-known destinations now face the threat of tourist overconsumption. For the more pristine natural sites, like Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend—which, on a daily basis, now sees four times the amount of visitors in a day as it saw in an entire year only half a decade earlier—the risk is increasingly dire, as these delicate ecosystems simply aren’t equipped to handle the burden of increased human visitation.”


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That’s not to say that it’s all negative for the locals though. I recently returned from a place where it seemed like the entire economy is running on Instagram. Visitors are pouring in from around the world to recreate the photos from their feeds, and local businesses are booming as a result.
The history of Cappadocia dates back thousands of years, when the region’s first inhabitants carved cave houses into the “fairy chimney” rock formations. Cappadocia has witnessed the rise and fall of the ancient Greek, Persian, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Early Christians fleeing persecution from the not-yet-Christian Roman Empire settled in Cappadocia, where they fashioned homes, churches, and entire monasteries out of the abandoned Bronze Age caves. And yet, for all this history, I know of Cappadocia as the place where people take those hot air balloon pictures I see on Instagram.


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Flying in a hot air balloon is a treat no matter the location. Standing in the basket under the warmth of the roaring burner, watching as the world floats away. Flying in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia is even better. The balloon provides an aerial perspective, but flies much lower and slower than an airplane — perfect for taking in the alien landscape of the region. Hot air balloons have minimal steering abilities, their direction of travel is determined mostly by the wind conditions. The wind tends to be calmest first thing in the morning, before the sun has a chance to heat the air.
Every morning in Goreme, the tourism capital of Cappadocia, just as the sun rises, so too do the hot air balloons. Balloon flights are big business here, with as many as one hundred hot air balloons taking to the sky every day. The balloons are supposed to provide the perfect vantage point for taking photos of the scenery, but all those balloons painting the sky have themselves become the scenery.


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As the balloon pilots check their checklists and prepare for liftoff, the Instagrammers clamber out of bed and up the stairs to reach their hotel rooftops. Climbing on to the roof of one’s hotel in the pre-dawn darkness might sound like an invitation for eviction, but hotels like the Mithra Cave Hotel and Sultan Cave Suites in Goreme encourage this sort of behavior. Breakfast doesn’t start until 8 AM, but the hotel staff rise hours earlier to prepare bountiful baskets of fruit for the Instagrammers on the roof.
The fruit is not for eating of course, but for the photos. It’s part of the scene along with traditional Turkish tray tables and tea sets. In contrast to the varied and rugged landscapes in Cappadocia, the rooftop scenes are carefully crafted and consistent. Each photograph is nearly identical. A girl in a flowing dress surrounded by colorful carpets and pillows, posing for the camera, but never looking at it. As if the photographer stumbled on this scene in a stroke of serendipity and found the subject eating breakfast while watching the balloons at sunrise. The idea is to make it look effortless, while the reality is anything but.
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I watched from an adjacent rooftop as a group of five girls took turns taking photos for one another. In between posing for and taking the photos, they traded dresses, purses, and hats. Each of the girls went through no fewer than five different outfits. And for each outfit they took a series of photos with different props. First the fruits and a traditional wine carafe. Then modern martini glasses and a hookah. The most popular props of all are the hotels’ resident dogs. If you’re lucky, you can get a photo with Izmir, the Sultan Cave Suites’ cocker spaniel. Izmir has nearly 14,000 followers on Instagram.