Social Media & Unrealistic Expectations of Travel

Unrealistic Travel Instagram Influencers

Scrolling through Instagram’s new Reel feature (reposts from TikTok / another stolen feature) I came across a couple who, hand in hand, rolled their suitcases towards the camera with bright smiles. “This is what we were told India would look like,” the caption above them read. Next were images of… well, India. India’s streets packed with people, the worn colors of buildings strewn with placards and business names, balconies filled with their family clothes left out to dry. Then another scene, the Taj Mahal with tour groups shuffling around, countless souls taking selfies and group pictures.

“But this is what it was actually like when we got there,” the next caption read. Next? Scenes of the girl in a flowing dress in an empty temple, the colors of which were vibrant, nearly fluorescent. The one after that? The two of them locking lips on empty steps leading down to the Ganges river in Varanasi.

I Had Questions…

Instagram has evolved. Presets and photoshop have become the standard. I myself use a preset, of course. Everything looks so vibrant and makes the grid more or less monochromatic. But in recent years, the colors have become saturated to such an extent that it bleaches out the reality, and the true beauty, of travel.

Social media has molded an unrealistic expectation of travel for millennials everywhere. Bloggers like Of Leather and Lace tell hungry Instagrammers the best places to go in New York City. Note, it’s not because these places are interesting nor do the blogger touch on history at all. It is because they can get the best photos of themselves there.

…F*k History, I Just Want My Picture Taken…

Yes, Grand Central is beautiful but it is also a hub, not your personal studio. I almost tripped on an extended leg on the stairway and bulldozed through group pictures taken in front of my platform as I ran for the train. It’s… annoying. It’s annoying anywhere. And I know, as I enjoy taking photos, have always enjoyed it long before Instagram, that I am an annoyance as well. Though I have never stopped traffic in order to get that oh so perfect shot.

When I was young, film cameras were still the way of things. My family would take pictures of meaningful moments or monuments while on tours when, stupified with wonder, they just had to take a picture of that rock. Now I wonder if people are stupified, brought speechless with the beauty of Grand Central, or just competing against other Instagram accounts, ticking off a photoshoot location.

Are you well-traveled if you strive for lonely backdrops in India? Monuments with only your flowing dress and an “exotic” temple insight? Are you a traveler if you say that India isn’t filled with people? Sounds to me as though you’ve never been.

It must be easy to photoshop yourself into iconic locations without ever stepping foot in the country, no? These photos are void of travel altogether, stripping a country of its beauty, its people, the reason we travel… whittling it down to what could certainly just be a green screen.

Selling Fantasy, Not Travel

I tire of flowing dresses, ultra pink skies that, in real life, might signal danger or an impending radiation blast. Why would I choose to travel to India to be alone with a statue when there are people to talk to, smells for your nose to enjoy, saris so naturally vibrant worn by bashful, wonderful women that you want to stop and know their story, what they’ve seen, how they live. They are why we travel.

We travel for the smells, tastes, beeps of rickshaws, and switch of a cow’s tail in the middle of a busy street. For the upsets, the missed trains, the stuffy trains, the exhaustion, the anger that gives way to such pure grateful joy when you are given a chi after a long day and someone on the street strikes up a conversation. You’re tired, you don’t want them to talk to you, grumpy and worn from tired feet and constant bartering on the streets. But this person surprises you with talk of politics, with a geopolitical debate that keeps you riveted for an hour before you’re invited to an Indian wedding, guest list 2,000 people long.

We travel to stop and enjoy chaos, to flow with the unexpected, to fall in love with the human race because it can be so easy to fall out of it.

True Adventure Might Not Be Photogenic…

And that is what the Instagram algorithm would abhor. Masses. Chaos. People at their most human. Dust, grime, soot, and a cow that won’t get out of a dusty street. Great with the right presets, with the correct composition, but only for photographers. These are not the shots that travel influencers look for.

These photos are only worthy if you can afford the appropriate gear, edit the imperfections away, and tone out the drab colors with something so much more. And I get it! We are a visual species constantly wanting more, to see something we can dream of, pine for… aspire to create ambitious post-covid plans to see with friends.

Influencers Often Spread Unrealistic Expectations of Travel With Perfectly Photoshopped Photos

But what does it mean when we’d rather take lonely pictures, changing outfits multiple times, rather than wander the city for hours on end? Shouldn’t travel be about taking in every museum, every interaction, every food of-that-place that we can? Are these unrealistic expectations of travel the loneliness social media is so great at garnering?

In 2015, I followed an early travel influencer on Instagram. She posted a video of herself on a train through Switzerland. “I’m so bored,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just… I wish I was there… I’m so so bored.”

And I was appalled. Bored, on a Swiss train? Swiss trains are crazy! There’s so much you could do. They often have high-end dining carts where you can spy on fancy Swiss people. Or, I don’t know… read, write, enjoy the scenery? I unfollowed her.

She was given a book deal on her travel passion the following year.

PSA: If you want a double-tap because of what you’re wearing, you’re a fashion influencer, not a travel blogger.

David likes Youtube travel bloggers and I sat to watch a couple in Albania the week before he and I went. For twenty minutes, I watched videos of empty beaches set to the soundtrack of some ambient mix. Then we got to listen to them complain about bugs.

Instagrammers love Albania. They love the emptiness, the gorgeous beaches, and the water. “Why aren’t more people visiting?” One Instagrammer wrote. “How is it that this country is so… pristine?”

By pristine, she meant underdeveloped. And all you’d have to do is do a brief run through of what the Albanian people have gone through in the last one hundred years to understand why those beaches are so… pristine!

When Unrealistic Expectations of Travel Become Physical Ailments

There is a word in Japanese, パリ症候群, or pari shōkōgun, defining the sense of disappointment that Paris is not as beautiful as they had expected it to be. There have been hospitalizations, sickness, and fainting caused by the unrealistic expectations of travel.

They see Paris for what it truly is and… faint. While this in and of itself is a fascinating phenomenon, I personally want to know its root cause: why did these people think Paris wouldn’t be gritty, dirty, and, at times, utterly unwelcoming?

COVID & The Travel Influencers’ Threats to Quit Travel

In April of this COVID year, I saw multiple travel Instagrammers post about how they were thinking about giving up travel.

I’m not kidding. They wrote a three paragraph long script about giving up… travel?

Personally, I was enraged. But what did that mean, give up travel? What was travel to them? And… what did it travel mean to their audience?

Was it always just a business model, a way to pose in front of pretty, polished places? To wine and dine at five-star hotels and have the accommodation foot the bill? Was traveling all about pretending to be a wealthy princess? And (last question) is that really how they chose to burn that flight fuel, that carbon dioxide… did they even offset?

The Repercussions of Social Media’s Fantasy Travel

If influencers want to give-up-travel because of the pandemic, to quit a passion in the face of COVID’s lockdown, then by all means. No one should be forced into a job they hate. I just wonder what the repercussions of such swift actions do to the tourism industry that has come to rely on them, at least partially. What it will mean for the thousands who aspire to be just like them?

I am not here to damn the couple who wanted to drive traffic to their TikTok by posting something utterly false about India. Clearly (or I hope) it was meant to outrage people, to make their video trend due to the number of comments it would garner. This in itself is a problem, no? More and more accounts are using bait-clicky words, arguments, or playing stupid in order to outrage their following into commenting. It’s all to improve their social media analytics, to trend, to spark a debate. I’ve never seen a healthy debate sparked.

But for that TikTok couple, I have to wonder, what’s so wrong with the truth? Isn’t India still beautiful, crowds and all? And added to that, isn’t it the travel writer / blogger / influencer’s job to be truthful? A travel influencer should never knowingly send a nervous introvert to India with unrealistic expectations of travel bliss. Nor should they have enough sway to send an anxiety-ridden femme-power girl squad to Marakesh under the guise that it is as serene and inviting as Lake Louise in winter’s dawn. It’s problematic at best.

For the Love of Travel, Not Likes

Why wash away the people that make every inch of this earth so great? It’s why we want to travel. Because we want to trek to the farthest reaches of the planet to give someone a smile and rack our brain thinking, okay… do I know how to say hello?

Travel is an adventure that can’t be boxed into an Instagram image or even video captured for Youtube. It’s vast and beautiful. It is the story of your life well lived and the story of the lives of others who have touched you.

If it does so easily fit in your Instagram then you didn’t travel. You wore a dress and posed for a picture. Perhaps you are a fashion influencer, selling an outfit, or the suitcase you’re wheeling into view with your boyfriend. You’re a salesman and that’s cool!

But if you’re lying about what India actually looks like then you’re downgraded to snake oil salesman, selling unrealistic expectations of travel. Untrustworthy and probably have never actually been. End of story.