The most viewed TikTok video of all time shows a young man, dressed up as a Hogwarts student, flying a magic broomstick in an industrial park. The 18-second snippet has been watched some 2.2 billion times.
But TikToks about travel haven’t taken off in the same way. Some reasons are obvious: Pandemic lockdowns have clipped the wings of traveling content makers. There are other reasons: The public appetite for glossy influencers posting jet-setting content from around the world seems to be waning.
Still, some creators have found novel ways to explore places that appeal to the TikTok audience and highlight off-the-beaten-path locations. Now, as people armed with vaccines delve into trip planning, the social media platform may end up changing how people approach travel.
This is especially true for American millennials and Gen Z, who are more likely to be on TikTok than other age groups. This cohort is spending more now, especially on travel and dining, than they were pre-pandemic. Their number presents an opportunity for the massively popular platform, which launched in the U.S. in 2018, hit two billion global downloads last August, and was the most downloaded app in 2020.
It also presents challenges: Can TikTok’s talent for showing unfiltered bursts of life be harnessed to educate travelers without saturating destinations with unwanted attention, potentially leading to overtourism—or worse, sinking into the confusing morass of paid influencers and product placements?
Samanta Rosas, a 28-year-old creator from Houston, believes there’s a way to thread the needle: to produce videos that present destinations authentically, tell engaging little stories, and model responsible tourism.
On a trip to Mexico City, where she has relatives, Rosas posted a TikTok of Grutas Tolantongo, a resort location with heated pools in a box canyon a few hours north of the capital. While most of her posts get thousands of views, this TikTok, showcasing the area’s natural beauty, struck a chord and eventually received more than 3.5 million views.
“A lot of my family has been there,” she says. “People from Mexico go there, but it’s a hidden gem for tourists.”
Surfacing unexpected places
On TikTok, users typically spend time on the “For You” page, an algorithm-driven selection of videos based on what the user has watched in the past. Unlike YouTube or Instagram, which surface specific accounts users already follow, TikTok users interact more with new accounts, creating opportunities for creators to be found by new audiences.
For this reason, unexpected content, like Davud Akhundzada’s videos of his trip to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, can reach global audiences. Based in Prague, Akhundzada, 27, has run a YouTube account for years, gathering a few thousand followers. But after his TikTok video showing him at the dried-up Aral Sea went viral, he picked up 100,000 new followers in a month.
“Americans are really interested in this geographical area,” Akhundzada says. “And they are interested in a unique story.” While he would love to become a full-time traveler, he does not want to become an Instagram-style influencer, and would make TikToks whether or not they bring him money. “I have zero revenue from TikTok,” he says. “But it’s fun for me.”
Like other social media platforms, TikTok includes users who have made full-time careers posting content by partnering with brands or doing advertisements. Alex Ojeda, who has more than six million followers, is one of them.
Based in Austin, Ojeda, 19, has always loved traveling, but started on the platform doing dances and funny sketches. Eventually he realized that travel could be part of what he shared on his account. His TikTok of a hike up Koko Head Trail, in Oahu, Hawaii, starts with the expected beauty shots at the top, but then shows how hard the climb is to get there. He has since partnered with destinations and says he feels driven to help places bounce back after more than a year of limited business.
But there’s a difference in the feel of TikTok videos—they are looser, and less retouched and idealized. This appeals to travelers now, according to Ellie Bamford of RGA, an innovation consultancy.
“All of our crisis habits have led to permanent shifts in behavior. The perfectly manicured influencer look is suddenly not so appealing—it isn’t in tune with what we were experiencing,” she says. “When it comes to travel, it’s about the culture, what the cuisine is like, how to think about traveling sustainably.”
On most social platforms, travel problems, such as overtourism, can get glossed over; on TikTok they get called out. One reason for this is that the platform’s audience is generally younger and more socially engaged than on other platforms, according to Joon Park, a senior cultural strategist at Sparks & Honey, a cultural consultancy firm.
“They are concerned about ethical consumerism and travel,” Park says. “TikTok is going to drive responsible tourism, especially in light of a pandemic.”
These concerns have allowed content to flourish from people showing off their hometowns, with authenticity “considered as a status symbol on TikTok,” Park says. “They are local celebrities because of their knowledge of the cities that they inhabit.”
New Orleanian Lansa Fernandez, 24, had been posting about fashion on TikTok but started to focus on his favorite dining spots right before the lockdowns began. His first video, about snacks he ate growing up, got hundreds of thousands of views, thanks to his straight-talking charm. A typical quip: “I know y’all going to judge me, but I don’t really care!” He has since turned more of his attention to highlighting other restaurants in his city, including a quick tour of his favorite vegan spot (“although I’m not even vegan”).
“People don’t want to do the touristy stuff,” he says. “They want the real New Orleans.” Now that the city is opening up, he wants to spotlight clubs that play bounce music, a homegrown style of hip-hop, and other authentic experiences that won’t show up at the top of a YouTube search.
One reason for the growth of travel TikToks is that they successfully impart useful advice. After being fully vaccinated, N’Taezha Davis went to Houston last month with a friend and scoured TikTok for ideas. The bars and restaurants the 25-year-old discovered on TikTok—Hungry Like the Wolf, FAO, and Present Company—were all hits. They even impressed the local friend she visited. “She hadn’t heard of any of the places we found,” Davis says.
Davis is now planning a trip to San Francisco with the help of TikTok tips. “TikTok is going to give you the hole-in-the-walls and the mom-and-pop shops that provide more of an experience,” she says. “You find some of the best-kept secrets on TikTok.”
The new travel agent
The easiest way to start travel planning with TikTok is to follow a hashtag, such as #Mexico or #rollercoasters. Not all of what comes up will be about travel, but even locals doing dances or fawning over a movie star can give travelers a sense of the place they are interested in visiting.
A whole genre of travel tips can be found under #travelhack, such as Salt Lake City-based flight attendant Kat Kamalani’s series of hotel and airplane hacks. She offers advice on how to check into a hotel safely or what drinks to avoid on planes. (Although some viewers don’t always agree with her tips.)
Travel brands, destinations, and publishers are in on the action. While this brings a diversity of colorful coverage, users should take note of video sources and potential commercial interests. [Disclosure: TikTok helped National Geographic launch an account this year.]
As TikTok’s algorithm learns more about your preferences, the platform reveals more secrets, in the form of unexpected (and sometimes unvarnished) videos. This serendipitous approach mirrors what makes discovering a new destination so rewarding in the first place.