Insta tourism explained: What, why and where

Sep 4, 2019 | Learn about tourism, Tourism management, Types of tourism

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(Last updated on: 19/10/2020)

We’ve all heard of the social media platform Instagram. With over one billion monthly users, Instagram is the place to be. But what is this new term that’s been floating about? What is Insta tourism?

In this post I will explain what is meant by the term Insta tourism, how the social media platform has become an important part of the tourism industry and what the impacts of this might be.

Insta tourism

What is Insta tourism?

Insta tourism, also referred to as Instagram tourism, is a new form of tourism that has emerged in response to the use of the social media platform, Instagram.

Over one billion people use Instagram every month, sharing images from all over the world with their followers. Whilst some Instagram users are sharing content predominantly with their friends and family, others are paid ‘Influencers’ with thousands of loyal followers.

Users are often inspired by photographs that they are exposed to through the social network, which has seen a rise in tourism to places that have been featured in said images, particularly those that are shared by large-scale Influencers.

Insta tourism definitions

As I explained, Insta tourism is a relatively new concept. In fact, when I type the term Insta tourism into Google Scholar there is not one result returned (as of September 2019)! That’s not to say that somebody somewhere hasn’t done any research into this area yet… I’m sure there are some budding PhDs out there somewhere analysing the implications of Insta tourism… but right now, there appears to be no published research on this concept.

As a big Instagram user myself, this is a subject that interests me greatly. Yet the only information that I can find on the issue comes from travel bloggers or the media, which for all their wisdom, are not always the most reliable or objective sources.

Writing in the area of Insta tourism seems to focus on two main areas:

  1. the marketing/promotional value that Insta tourism can bring to a destinations/attraction
  2. the negative impacts associated with Insta tourism with references to the way in which Instagram is ‘ruining travel’ or the ‘Insta effect’ (I discuss this further down this post)

Which this in mind, I have developed the following definition of the term Insta tourism:

‘Insta tourism involves the use of the social media platform Instagram, which enables organisations and individuals to promote or research travel opportunities. Insta tourism is commonly associated with social media influencers and does not necessarily depict a true picture.’

How Insta tourism is changing travel

Travel and tourism is inextricably linked to our visual senses. Exotic and romanticised images have helped to sell holidays since the days of the Grand Tour and the rise of Thomas Cook, so it is no surprise that Instagram has become a prominent player in the tourism industry.

Insta tourism

Instagram now has over 1 billion monthly users and this figure continues to grow. In this survey by a U.K.-based holiday rental home insurance company, 40% of millennials said that the ‘instagrammability’ of a destination was the most important motivating factor when choosing where to go on holiday; ranking higher than personal development or sightseeing. Almost all travellers in the millennial age range (those born between 1981-1996) record their travels on their social media.

Furthermore, research by Media Post found that 48% of Instagram users rely on the images and videos that they see on the social media platform to inform their travel decision making and 35% of users use the platform to discover new places.

Insta tourism has developed in parallel to the growth of the social media platform Instagram. Destinations that once were seen only by the most hard-core and motivated travellers (I once took a 12 hour slow cargo boat with no seats to the Gilli’s Islands from Bali- needless to say there were not many other tourists there at that time), are now seen by the world through the Instagram lens.

People flock to places that they had never heard of before because they have seen beautiful pictures on Instagram. People are now flocking to ‘Instagrammable’ destinations in large numbers, resulting in significant growth in tourist numbers in some areas.

Some examples of Insta tourism around the world

I’ll never forget when my husband and I visited Santorini. We arrived at the picturesque Oia (the cliff side area with lots of white buildings) to see flocks of people all hoping to get the perfect late afternoon/sunset photos. Most of the people were dressed in white, so was I.

My husband remarked ‘why didn’t you tell me there was a dress code here?!’. Whilst I hadn’t actually given it much thought, it seems my subconscious had noted that most people I have seen in the beautiful images that I had seen online were wearing white!

I did the same thing at this temple in Thailand…

Anyway, I digress…

The Icelandic tourist board has expressed the significance of Instagram in the recent growth in tourist numbers visiting the country, explaining that photos of the natural elements on offer in the country have attracted visitors.

The tourist board in New Zealand jumped on the Instagram band wagon in 2015 when they hired a number of influencers to promote tourism in Wanaka; resulting in a 14% increase in tourism numbers.

Instagram acts as a powerful marketing tool for all areas of the travel and tourism industry. It’s not just destinations that are promoted on Instagram, it’s also hotels, attractions and businesses.

Posting photos isn’t the end of the story either. Instagram’s hash tag, mention and geotagging facilities allow people to easily search and browse images and find out where they are located.

Read also: Dark tourism explained: What, why and where

The role of influencers in Insta tourism

It is clear that Instagram plays a key role in the promotion of destinations. Destination Management Organisations (DMOs), tourist boards and tourism organisations commonly recruit influencers to promote their products and services.

There are many people who actually make a living doing this! Influencers are frequently offered all expenses-paid trips and large sums of money in return for promotion on their social media channel. This can usually be determined through the use of #ad, #gifted, #sponsored or other similar remark.

I have actually done a little bit of research into this area myself, having published a paper on the the role of cognition, emotion and trust in online marketing. I have also done some research into influencers themselves (looking at elements such as pay, working hours, sources of income etc).

There has been some debate over how reliable said influencers and their photos may be, however. Photos taken at 6am before the crowds arrive, that have been amended using photo editing software or that have been in-genuinely referenced in the caption have been the open source of controversy in the media.

View this post on Instagram

This is a beautiful shot, right? When a colleague saw this she said 'wow, what an idyllic family photo. You are in a temple surrounded by water!'⠀ ⠀ But do you know what? It's FAKE!⠀ ⠀ This famous photo spot is frequented by hundreds of insta tourists each day, all in search of the perfect Instagram shot. ⠀ ⠀ I visited this place back in 2011 and it was nothing particularly memorable. I have a photo of me stood between these gates, but it is nothing special. A few years back a local had the remarkable idea of holding a mirror beneath a phone camera to creat an illusion of water. AN ILLUSION! Now, hundreds of tourists flock here each day and queue for up to four hours to get the perfect photograph. There is a ticket system and people with stands who take your photos. Each person gets only a few seconds in between the gates. ⠀ ⠀ I think this is an excellent example to show that not everything is as it seems. Yes, we have a beautiful family photograph, but the setting wasn't quite as it might seem! I've written all about Insta tourism and the negative impacts that it has had on destinations and tourist attractions- click the link in my bio and search insta tourism. ⠀ ⠀ By the way- we were not prepared to queue in the heat for this amount of time… we were very lucky that somebody had given up waiting and offered us their ticket… and we only waited twenty minutes for our turn!

A post shared by Dr Hayley Stainton (@the_tourism_teacher) on

Positive impacts of Insta tourism

Insta tourism has been beneficial in that it has attracted visitors to parts of the world that they did not previously travel to. Resorts have opened up, new tourism businesses and been set up and tourism-based operations have become more profitable as tourist numbers to certain areas have increased.

By default, Insta tourism has a positive economic impact on the local area, creating jobs and collecting taxes, which can be reinvested in the local economy and used in other areas such as education or healthcare.

It can also have positive environmental impacts. Travel pictures will typically show elements of nature (think beautiful beach, lush rainforest, crisp white snow) and in order for tourists to see this nature, it must be protected. As a result, Insta tourism can help promote environmental protection and preservation.

Read also: Sex tourism: What, why and where

Negative impacts of Insta tourism

Unfortunately, the media publicity surrounding the concept of Insta tourism has revolved largely around the negative impacts that are associated with it.

Whilst increases in tourism numbers can do wonders for a local economy, it can have devastating consequences for the natural environment and the host community. Complaints of overtourism come hand in hand with Insta tourism. Areas that were once untouched suddenly begin to snuggle with capacity issues.

Erosion, littering, resentment from the local population, increases in crime, raises in real estate… the list goes on. Unfortunately, the tourism industry does have a lot of negative impacts if not managed properly. The problem in many cases is that Insta tourism has grown so quickly, that it has been difficult for the different levels of tourism planning to adjust in a timely fashion. This makes it difficult to achieve the ideals of sustainable tourism.

What’s more is that there have even been deaths recorded as a result of Insta tourism. According to this article in the Washington post, there have been over 250 selfie related deaths recorded worldwide. Whilst these may not all Insta tourists per se, there is no doubt that there are thousands of travellers each year who pose for photographs in dangerous locations, many of whom have been spurred on to do so because of similar images that they have seen on Instagram.

Geotagging has been seen as one of the biggest culprits of the negative impacts of Insta tourism. Geotagging allows people to show exactly where in the world their photograph was taken, enabling the people who view the Instagram post to visit that exact same location.

This means that small, remote and hard to reach areas are being sought out by many tourists seeking the same photographs. They are visiting a location because of its ‘Instagrammability’ and if it were not for the social media platform, they would probably never have visited said location.

Many photographs might make it seem like the person in it is the only tourist around, but what you often won’t see is the queue of tourists behind the photographer, waiting to take that same Instagram-perfect shot….

All of this in response to the sharing of photos. It crazy, isn’t it?

Below is a useful documentary that outlines the negative impacts of Insta tourism, providing details of campaigns that are underway around the world which are attempting to reduce tourist numbers.

An interesting round table discussion on Insta tourism

The instagram effect

The Instagram effect is the psychological impact that the things we see on Instagram have on our brain. This isn’t necessarily related to travel. We might want to buy a new dress because we saw a photo of someone wearing it on Instagram. We might want to buy our children a new toy because we saw a celebrity’s kid playing with it on their social media channel. We might want to hike to Trolltunga because our favourite influencer did it.

When most people reference the Instagram effect, however, what the are really referring to is the negative impacts of Insta tourism, most notably, overtourism.

Here is a short news clip demonstrating what most people mean when they use the term ‘the Instagram effect’.

The best Instagram travellers to follow

There are literally millions of travel accounts on Instagram (my own included). Most travel bloggers will have an Instagram account, as will many travel-based organisations.

Here are some of the best accounts to follow, according to Forbes:

Alex Strohl

With over 2 million followers and growing, Alex Strohl has one of the largest followings in the history of Instagram! His work has been featured on Buzzfeed, Vanity Fair, and Land Rover.

This Instagram star is based out of Whitefish, Montana but takes pictures around the world. He’s not big on taking photos of himself, instead you will find lots of nature-based photos.

ExpertVagabond

Matt Karsten was a freelance photographer who quit his job in 2010 to travel the world. He has been to over 50 countries and has touched every corner of the world.

His photos are mostly of his adventuresome hikes and extreme sports around the world. Matt has more than 150k followers as of 2019.

The Road Les Traveled

Lesley Anne Murphy has one of the largest followings on Instagram, with over 400k followers. She promotes fashionable travel and posts photos of her in a range of romantic and exotic destinations from tropical paradises to treehouse loft-style hotels to her hanging on the edge of a train passenger car.

View this post on Instagram

This exact weekend last year, I walked into the Luna Shala for the first time, unbeknownst to me in the moment that it’d be the single most beautiful and transformative experience of my life. Sure, The Bachelor opened my mind to the possibilities around me. Finding love on TV why not?! Surgery opened my body, making me fully appreciate the sheer force that allows me to move every day. But this. This month in the Caribbean opened my heart. Yes I learned proper alignment and was possibly in the best shape of my life after 8+ hours of yoga/day. But it wasn’t about that. It was about truth, letting go, clarity, self-love, vulnerability, service and being seen. The idea to give yourself what you need first so that you can then give to others is everything. If you can’t sit with your own shit, how can you expect to help others with theirs? My yoga teacher training was the most expensive thing I’ve ever given myself, but the takeaways were priceless. We did some weird shit. We did some beautiful shit. In a room with 51 others ranging in age from 16-57, we left it all behind in order to be better. Better humans, daughters, sisters, wives, friends, mothers, aunts, teachers. True surrender feels good. So does the invitation to be ourselves, unapologetically us. I’m sitting here a year later, channeling the glow, the gratitude, the life alteration that came about from 23 glorious days in the Caribbean and can feel it with every fiber of my being. On our first and last day, we each chose an angel card, a special guidance tool if you will. On day 1, it said Change in Direction, telling me to embrace the change that I’ve been witnessing for some time. On the final day, it said Perfect Timing: this is the right time for you to move forward. Less than a month later I launched LimitLes, an arm of my business I am most proud of for its ability to connect others, bring joy and create change. Cheers to doing lots more of this in the future. Speaking of! We just launched LIMITLES IN BALI 2019! Applications + lots more info in my profile link 🙂 In awe of this practice, its teaching, Aruba, @yoga_girl and @lara.heimann. Thank you thank you thank you. #yoga #yogaeverydamnday #aruba

A post shared by Lesley • The Road Les Traveled (@lesleyannemurphy) on

Wander Reds

Alvaro from Wander Reds is on a mission to be the first Spaniard to travel to every country in the world. He posts evocative images of his travels to more than 115k followers on Instagram.

His pictures include a little bit of everything from beautiful panoramas, rainforest treks, and scenes of historic buildings and towns.

Tommy Clarke

Tommy Clarke takes fantastic images around the world. Many of his photos are birds-eye views of destinations, often taken by him hanging out of a helicopter!

The top ‘Instagrammable’ destinations

I’ll never forget the time that I was visiting the Acropolis in Athens. There was a bunch of backpackers all taking photos for each other. I heard one say ‘take a ‘grammable’ photo for me!’. This was the first time (circa 2015) that I had heard this expression…

….now it is an everyday term it seems! Instagram is a household name, taking square photos and using filters is ingrained in the behaviours of the youth society of today. I’m still not entirely sure what a boomerang is, but I’m pretty sure I’d be ‘down with the kids’ if I figured out how to make one…

So it seems that some backdrops are ‘instagrammable’ and some just aren’t. And it doesn’t take much more than a bit of scrolling on the app to find which destinations are ‘Instagram-worthy’.

Here are a few examples:

Gilli Trawanagan, Indonesia

This famous swing has become iconic for traveller who visit the Gillie’s Islands in Indonesia.

Blue lagoon, Iceland

Iceland has seen a bit rise in tourists since it began promoting tourism on Instagram.

Macchu Pichu, Peru

The majority of tourists who visit Macchu Pichu will pose for a photograph just like this.

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Yep, I have this photo too, somewhere.

Trolltunga, Norway

I’ll admit, it is pictures like this that have put Norway on my bucket list!!

Santorini, Greece

The traditional Santorini shot that I referred to earlier.

La Casa Del Arbol, Equador

Known as the swing at the end of the world, tourists flock here to take the perfect picture.

Lempuyang Temple, Bali

This iconic temple welcomes thousands of ‘Insta tourists’ each year.

Insta tourism: A conclusion

Insta tourism may not yet be a concept recognised and understood by everyone, but it is rapidly becoming a BIG player in the tourism industry. From the marketing potential to the risks of overtourism, Insta tourism is all but one more tourism type that needs to be carefully managed in order to ensure sustainable tourism.

Did you find this article useful? Please let me know your thoughts/views on the topic by leaving a comment below!

7 Comments
  1. tom

    good one

    Reply
  2. Desert Camping

    wonderful post. Thanks for sharing with us. I like those picture too.

    Reply
  3. Frank Abagnale

    Good content. Great moment sharing! Photo editing also is done nicely.

    Reply
    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Thanks Frank, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reply
  4. Carlo Olde Loohuis

    Hi Hayley,

    Awesome concept, loved reading about this and would like to find out more.

    I have been searching for a thesis topic for the last week, and this topic is the one that triggers my interest most and would like to use as my graduation topic.
    I hope that you don’t mind me doing so?

    I am also quite curious to know what sources you have been able to find on this topic and if there are questions you still have after your research into this new topic that might be worth for me to investigate?

    Again very interesting and well written piece, thanks!

    Kind Regards,

    Carlo

    Reply
    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Hi Carlo, I think this would be a great dissertation topic! There isn’t much literature on it yet but you could draw on a range of associates concepts such as marketing, destination image, motivation etc.

      Reply

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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