Puffed, gray-tinged clouds roll over Odda, Norway, reflected in the quiet azure waters of Lake Ringedalsvatnet. More than 2,000 feet above, a hiker is perched atop Trolltunga, a cliff that juts out of the mountain. There’s not another soul in sight—at least, that’s what Instagram might have you believing.
What photos of this iconic vista don’t reveal is the long line of hikers weaving around the rocky terrain each morning, all waiting for their chance to capture their version of the Instagram-famous shot. Between 2009 and 2014, visitors to Trolltunga increased from 500 to 40,000 in what many consider a wave of social media-fueled tourism.
Now six years old, Instagram has more than 500 million active users sharing an average of 80 million photos a day. Clearly we have an appetite for imagery, and it’s influencing our travel decisions.
“I see this desire to escape to these landscapes, to do something real, because more than ever everyone is buried in their phones,” says photographer Corey Arnold (@arni_coraldo), who shot the October 2016 cover story for National Geographic magazine. “But where do they get the inspiration to travel? Instagram.”
The proof is in the numbers. For example, in 2015, the tourism board of the small alpine town of Wanaka, New Zealand, began inviting and hosting “influencers”—social media trendsetters with large followings—to post about their adventures. The result was the fastest tourism growth in the country: a 14 percent increase.
According to Lake Wanaka Tourism, influencers provide an “incredible” return on investment.
“I guess following photographers on Instagram gives a more genuine expression than looking for inspiration in a tourism brochure,” says Johan Lolos (@lebackpacker), who launched his career as a paid brand and tourism photographer after trading Instagram posts for accommodation and experiences in Lake Wanaka.
And that is Instagram’s effectiveness as a marketing tool. People engage with Instagram 10 times more than with Facebook, which is why an estimated 48.8 percent of brands in the United States are on Instagram, with that number predicted to rise to 70.7 percent in 2017.
“Now you’re less than 10 clicks away from seeing an image on Instagram to purchasing a ticket to go there,” says Chris Burkard (@chrisburkard), a photographer with more than two million Instagram followers. “I’ve met people who have traveled to places because of my photographs, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical way … [That] wasn’t happening 10 years ago.”
This sharing of experiences has not only created communities where people can connect and share their lives, but it can also shine the spotlight on significant social and environmental issues. “The only way we’re going to get people to go out there and care about these places is if we get them there,” Burkard says. “That’s the first step to being a conservationist—caring about it. It’s never been more cool to be in nature.”
But what happens if something resonates with too many people? Perhaps the darkest underbelly of Instagram is when it opens the door for overcrowding, environmental degradation, and dangerous stunts.
“A lot of people are still very ego-driven. They want to portray that they are leading some kind of perfect life, which is quite silly really,” says photographer Trey Ratcliff (@treyratcliff). "I think it’s much more fun to be real."
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Perhaps most tragic is when the desire to replicate an experience comes at an unfathomable cost. In 2015, a 24-year-old Australian student lost her footing and fell to her death while trying to re-create the iconic shot at Trolltunga. In 2014, a Polish couple crossed the safety barrier at Cabo da Roca, Portugal, to capture a selfie and tumbled off the cliff’s edge. Similar reports of tourists ignoring official signage and safety warnings have been reported in sites across the globe.
The solution? Burkard believes we all have a responsibility to post accurate representations of the places we visit. “I often share the background story, especially if we’ve gotten a permit to go somewhere or do something other people normally wouldn’t be allowed to do,” he says.
The answer is not to stop traveling but to travel mindfully. Try going to places that aren’t being showcased, and share your own experiences instead of trying to mimic others, Burkard says.
“I think a lot about social media’s role in tourism. Now you can almost curate your whole experience based on the images you see online, and it’s an unnatural approach to travel. It makes me wonder what happened to exploration.”
Carrie Miller is a New Zealand-based writer, traveler, and storyteller for National Geographic Traveler magazine and other publications. She loves trying new things, from diving with great white sharks in Australia to riding reindeer in Mongolia. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.