Overtourism is a problem – but social media is not to blame

No one can deny that tourist destinations are becoming overrun, but blaming “brand building” is a departure from reality. 

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This week, the New York Times published an article on “overtourism” – the concept of there being, subjectively, “too many” tourists visiting a particular area – and the part technology plays in facilitating this blight. In and amongst some legitimate concerns, one quote stood out; one that has been the target of both praise and derision online:

“You can’t talk about overtourism without mentioning Instagram and Facebook — I think they’re big drivers of this trend,  Mr Francis said. Seventy-five years ago, tourism was about experience seeking. Now it’s about using photography and social media to build a personal brand.”

The quote comes from Justin Francis, chief executive of the sustainble travel agency Responsible Travel. Regardless of whether you agree, the larger premise of the article isn’t wrong – overtourism is becoming a problem. The piece cites two main examples, Venice and Amsterdam; both cities that have resorted to the law in attempts to curb the overcrowding, transport congestion, and stag parties that threaten to make locals’ lives unbearable. The article also is right to zero in on Airbnb. While the short-term letting platform can make the tourist experience far more authentic and far more affordable, it also creates systemic issues, such as increasing rents for locals. 

However, to argue that social media is the drive behind this influx of tourists is a departure from reality – one that undermines what is, otherwise, an article raising legitimate criticisms of technologies that negatively affect popular tourist destinations.

First, of the people who can afford to go on holiday, many of them are not on Instagram (Francis cites Facebook as well, but as far as his brand-building argument goes, Instagram is the only serious contender). In the UK, Instagram holds less than four per cent of the total social media market share. Demographically, Instagrammers can hardly account for the whole tourist population. While only ten per cent of Instagram users are aged over 35, all age groups travel, with the group most likely to do so aged between 35 and 44, according to EU statistics. Furthermore, international travel on every continent is up year-on-year, with travel to Europe and Asia increasing by seven and eight per cent respectively. 

The crux of Francis' argument is that overtourism is heavily caused by a priority to take photographs – that social media has made snapping pics more important than visiting the places themselves, which in turn drives up congestion. However, the idea that, before social media, we weren’t “endlessly queuing behind backpacks of hundreds of other tourists”, as the NYT article puts it, at places like the Louvre, taking pictures of historic landmarks, and doing embarrassing poses next to graffitied walls and statues, is simply untrue. Before Instagram posts, there were unending digital photo slideshows, and before that there were holiday snaps, and literal, photographic slides, and aristocrats’ Grand Tour diaries.

Cities are also not necessarily passive victims of tourists brandishing iPhones. Although Amsterdam is a perfectly nice European city to visit, two of its main attractions are undeniably its cannabis coffee shops and red light district – neither, incidentally, is particularly good for most Instagram users' personal brands. 

Ultimately, blaming overtourism on social media looks suspiciously like the latest case of millennial shaming. Rather than turning to the statistically-backed evidence that increased affluence and education means people can travel more, it is easier to blame Instagram users. Like millennials causing their own financial demise by spending too much money on avocados, it is a myth that does not stand up. Millennials are in fact increasingly moving away from social media platforms, with surveys showing that more than half are actively “seeking relief” from their social apps.

And that being said, some social media tourism isn't a bad thing. With exposure via Instagram, users can find out about less popular European destinations – swapping Oslo for Riga and Paris for Copenhagen. The app can bring new places to people's minds, relieve overrun tourist spots of their influx and funnel that tourist capital towards places who can use it. The cruise ships and coach trips that unload middle-aged tourists on the world’s great wonders may not be quite as flexible. 

Technology may sometimes accelerate overtourism, and it certainly can play a role in mitigating it. But in the meantime, there seems little point in blaming young people.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.