There’s a patch of countryside along Iceland’s southern coast that was pretty much empty 15 years ago. The family that had owned and farmed the land for decades had moved to Reykjavík, three and a half hours away. A few visitors stumbled upon the area, which—in addition to being an excellent pasture for sheep—is also home to a narrow, steep-sided canyon that looks like it could be straight out of Lord of the Rings.

Things started to change sometime around 2013, when a few intrepid travelers began posting photos of the canyon on social media—sometimes with a geolocation tag attached. Suddenly, anyone with an internet connection could navigate their way to this stunning, out-of-the-way location. The crowds quickly started to grow. And then, in 2015, the other shoe dropped: Justin Bieber showed up with a film crew. They were there to make the music video for Bieber’s song “I’ll Show You,” and they shot in several spots along Iceland’s south coast, including the canyon. As the video fades in, we see Bieber in jeans and an oversized hoodie, walking in his sneakers along a cliff edge. “My life is a movie / And everyone’s watchin’,’” we hear Bieber sing from the canyon rim. Since the video was posted on YouTube in November 2015, it’s been viewed more than half a billion times.

Within a few years, the canyon’s visitors grew from around 3,000 per year to 300,000, according to an employee of the Environment Agency of Iceland I spoke to. But back then there wasn’t even a real parking lot for visitors, let alone any bathrooms, walkways, or interpretive signs to guide the crowds. Without any infrastructure to protect it, the landscape turned into a mud pit—and the owners of the canyon barely knew what hit them.

It’s easy to see how a video from a mega-celebrity like Bieber impacts a place. But what about travel content from a social media nobody — can it really be all that bad? It turns out that those of us with low follower counts have a lot more influence than you think. And that’s a power that all of us must learn to handle with care.

A 2019 survey showed that nearly half of respondents looked to influencers for travel inspiration and revealed that a full 86% chose their travel destinations based on social media content posted by a friend, family member, or peer. Among Gen Z, the latter figure rose to 92%. It turns out that people really are interested in our vacation photos, at least when they pop up in their social media feed. And the content we make could be shaping their travel decisions.

Read More: The Dos and Don’ts of Using TikTok for Travel Tips

A 2017 survey of British adults aged 18 to 33 found that 40% of respondents cited “how ‘Instagrammable’” a travel destination would be as their most important motivator when deciding where to go on vacation. A follow-up survey of Gen Z travelers found that “how many TikTok views and likes their holiday videos will likely generate” was the single most influential factor in their destination decisions, coming in at number one for 43% of respondents. And if you look at a ranking of the world’s most Instagrammed locations, tourist destinations fill the list: Disneyland, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Niagara Falls, Machu Picchu, and Waikīkī, all made a recent top 20.

The idea of seeing a travel destination primarily as a place to lay claim to on our Instagram profiles echoes the most important criticism that travel writing has faced over the years: that the genre perpetuates colonial tropes—or worse, that it creates new ones. Because even as social media has exploded the number and diversity of “travel writers” around the world, it has also prompted many of us to roam the globe looking for people and landscapes that we can exploit for our own personal gain.

The academic Sean Smith of Tilburg University is making a career out of studying this very phenomenon. It’s important to understand these dynamics, he says, because Instagram isn’t just fun and games: the images that are shared on the app offer us a blueprint of the ideologies that underlie modern tourism. In his work, Smith has documented how many of our Instagram posts perpetuate colonial stereotypes, and he cites a few specific, recurring examples: “the tropical exotic” (for example, a tourist standing alone in a Cambodian ruin); “the promontory gaze” (Bieber pondering the Icelandic landscape from the edge of a cliff); and, finally, “fantasized assimilation” (a tourist dons a sari and poses with a group of Indian women to get a shot to show off to her friends).

Smith argues that these kinds of recurring visual motifs, full of colonial echoes, portray tourist destinations “as available for possession and consumption.” And the making and sharing of these kinds of images again, and again, and again perpetuates the sense that tourists have the right to “consume” a destination in this kind of way. Smith says that, while many of us have become sensitive to the colonial overtones of travel writing from the 20th century and earlier, we now need to bring the same scrutiny to what we see—and what we produce—on social media. “As a new multimodal form of travel writing,” Smith writes, “Instagram offers a largely uncritical space for antiquated notions of travel.”

So what’s a good tourist to do here? Quit social media—or at least quit posting? Tempting, but I don’t think so—at least not necessarily.

We can start by questioning the value of what we see on social media, and by being sensitive to meanings and implications that lie below the surface of the images. And when we create a post, we can put something or someone other than ourselves at the center. We can share something that represents the kind of perspective or story that we hope someone else might share about us, or about our own hometown. And we can remind ourselves that we hold a lot of power as “influencers” over the people who follow us, even if they’re just our old high school acquaintances and second cousins.

Because people are watching what we’re doing — and it’s shaping how they see the world.

Adapted from “The New Tourist: Waking Up to the Power and Perils of Travel” by Paige McClanahan. Copyright © 2024 by Paige McClanahan. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

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