For most of my life, I have lived in highly touristed areas, first in a Floridian beach community where the population doubled each winter. It has more than quadrupled in my lifetime, and the rate of population growth continues to increase. Water quality, traffic, and storm impacts are more than local experts can manage.
On social media, though, it is still paradise: long, empty stretches of white sandy beaches, bucolic sunsets, and kayaking in crystal blue waters with dolphins and manatees.
In Switzerland, where I live now, both our local thermal bath and farm shop have installed Instagram-inspired photo spots – spaces where you can stand with special statues and murals for photo backdrops. As photos from these spots are geotagged (the location data is attached to the image or video) and shared, more and more visitors descend on the small villages. So many visitors, in fact, that new municipal regulations and public transit services have been created in an attempt to limit overwhelming traffic.
Likewise, our favorite summer hiking hotel, family-run for five generations in the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, has closed to overnight guests for the 2023 summer season because it has been overrun by Instagram and YouTube-fueled visitors, though it is located in what environmental scientists regard as one of the fastest disintegrating, most unstable mountainous areas in the world. Overtourism has stretched both the environment and staff to its limits even as melting permafrost and rockslides threaten the area, including the nearest town.
Avoid Geotagging Your Summer Outdoor Travel
How do we enjoy our favorite places without driving throngs to already-stretched beautiful natural sites?
Court Whelan, Chief Sustainability Officer and Expedition Leader at Natural Habitat Adventures says to be a climate-conscious traveler:
Avoid geotagging things as much as possible. We want to keep things wild; we want to keep things pristine. I absolutely love sharing information and intel from my scouting trips from little gems that I’ve found. But the problem is… how easy it is for other people to see where you’ve been and try to repeat it on their own… thousands and thousands of times.
We love both photography and travel and offer specialized photography trips at two different levels, from avid amateur photographers to accomplished, advanced expeditions. It’s geotagging specific locations that can drive overtourism. As we embark on our summer trips and post images and videos from our outdoor adventures, let’s consider why and how we can be responsible travelers and social media users.
Sharing Your Summer Travel on Social Media
Launched in 2010, Instagram has become a powerful marketing tool for the travel industry, as images of picturesque landscapes, iconic landmarks, and hidden gems go viral and attract tourists. With its visually-oriented format and emphasis on aesthetics, Instagram has shaped social media and travel trends, influenced consumer behavior, and impacted the way people interact with the world around them. It has had a significant impact on destinations and tourism patterns.
Popular destinations have experienced surges in visitor numbers as travelers flock to capture iconic shots for their profiles. This phenomenon has led to a concentration of tourists in particular sites, overcrowding, strain on local resources, threatening habitat and displacing wildlife, and the degradation of natural and cultural sites sometimes referred to as the Instagram Effect.
And yet, tourism boards and tourist sites continue to erect specially designed photo spots to cater to travelers and social media content creators. It is incumbent upon users, therefore, to avoid geotagging specific locations.
Geotagging can adversely affect natural habitats in several ways:
– Overexposure and Increased Visitor Numbers
Geotagging on Instagram can expose more remote or lesser-known natural areas to a vast online audience. As these locations gain popularity and visibility, they often experience a surge in visitor numbers. Massively increased foot traffic can have detrimental effects on fragile ecosystems that are not equipped to handle large crowds. Delicate habitats can suffer from trampling, soil erosion, destruction of vegetation, and disturbance to wildlife, leading to long-term damage.
If nature and wildlife photography are your passion, you may be interested in one of Nat Hab’s small-group photo tours and expeditions.
– Habitat Destruction and Wildlife Displacement
Geotagging specific locations on Instagram can inadvertently contribute to habitat destruction and wildlife displacement. As more people are directed to these areas, the demand for infrastructure (trails, parking lots, facilities) may increase and disrupt existing wildlife patterns and behaviors. The construction of these amenities can lead to the clearing of natural habitats, fragmentation of ecosystems, and disruption of wildlife corridors. This loss and fragmentation of habitat can have severe consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.
Leave No Trace suggests tagging thoughtfully, saying, “Avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations. Instead, tag a general location, such as a state or region, if any at all. While tagging can seem innocent, it can also lead to significant impacts to particular places.”
– Invasive Species Introduction
Geotagging can unintentionally facilitate the spread of invasive species. When large numbers of individuals visit geotagged locations, they not only bring plastic and pollution but also may unknowingly bring non-native plant seeds or invasive insect species with them. These species can establish themselves in new habitats, outcompeting native flora and fauna, disrupting natural ecological balances, and causing harm to the local ecosystem.
Leave No Trace Principles for Summer Travel
To mitigate the adverse effects of Instagram and geotagging on natural habitats, it is crucial to promote responsible travel and ethical social media practices. This includes refraining from geotagging precise locations, adhering to Leave No Trace principles, respecting wildlife and their habitat, supporting local conservation initiatives, and encouraging others to prioritize the preservation and sustainable use of natural environments.
Nat Hab’s Court Whelan advises:
“Don’t say, ‘…Don’t come to Colorado, don’t come to Kenya.’ But instead of finding that one little off-the-trail, truly special place and saying, ‘Hey, this is the exact GPS coordinates if you want to replicate this exact photo,’ maybe let people adventure off on their own a little bit. Avoid geotagging to the nth degree. Leave a little bit of mystery out there for all of us to discover on our own.”
Instead, use social media to raise awareness and share conservation initiatives. Consider substituting specific geotagging to join powerful conservation campaigns, like World Wildlife Fund’s campaign to reduce the demand among Chinese tourists for ivory, or #TooLatergram campaign to grow awareness of environmental destruction. For WWF Pakistan, Hammad Anwar shared, “Social media management is a lot more than just posting on different forums; it is an art of creating and communicating messages that have a lasting and powerful impact.”