Is Social Media Ruining Adventure Travel?

Last year, more people died from selfie-related deaths than shark attacks.


To post, or not to post? Social media has emerged as the double-edged sword of the adventure travel space. On one hand, travelers and influencers posting relevant content about a still-off-the-radar destination or mom-‘n’-pop outfitter is every marketer’s dream. On the flip side, disconnecting from our daily lives and reconnecting with nature has always been one of the most powerful outcomes of any adventure experience. Henry David Thoreau said, “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild.” But does the tonic still have the same effect when we aren’t truly in the moment? Is it still as powerful when we’re taking in nature from behind our phones or via social media posts?

People once booked trips based on the weather, the culture, the airfare, the food. But as an article from Outside points out, today’s travelers factor in the photos they can post just as much as, if not more than, the experience they’ll have. As well as bragging rights, selfies and Snapchats have become the “word of mouth” of the old days, acting as a catalyst to get people thinking: “Hey, maybe that should be my next vacation.” A single Facebook or Instagram post, diligently hashtagged, can drive just as much business as traditional magazine articles, ad campaigns or TripAdvisor reviews. “If we see clients taking photos on our trips, then we absolutely engage with them and even repost them,” said Tom Marchant, co-founder of bespoke travel company Black Tomato and its adventure-driven offshoot, Epic Tomato. “We see referral business as friends and families of our clients see the photos from these trips and ask who organized the experience.”

Selfies and Snapchats have become the “word of mouth” of the old days, acting as a catalyst to get people thinking: “Hey, maybe that should be my next vacation.”

Tom McShane, Operations Director of Secret Compass, a travel company that leads pioneering expeditions in some of the world’s most remote places (like Burma, Gabon and Siberia), said most people discover their company through social media channels or internet searches and those platforms regularly generate bookings. “If someone wants to travel to a destination that only we go to, and they search on Instagram and find pictures we have posted from there, people might be inspired to then book that expedition,” he said. Even if someone doesn’t book a packrafting trip to Gabon after viewing Secret Compass’s enticing Insta feed, McShane said he hopes the images at least spark wanderlust in followers. “It might start with traveling close to home, which may lead to getting bit by the travel bug to explore further afield.”

According to the Knight Foundation, 89 percent of the US mobile population (144 million users) now access news and information via their mobile devices. “Social media has become a critical piece of not just promotion for destinations, but also education,” said Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. “It’s the most immediate and personal way you can talk about a place. One of the strongest drivers for visitation is word-of-mouth recommendations, and throwing photos on social media is the new personalized stamp of approval.”

Last year, it was reported that more people died from selfie-related deaths than shark attacks.

As outfitters find themselves engaging their audiences more and more on social media, requesting clients to post and tag photos after trips, they also face the dilemma of how to manage travelers who are glued to their devices. Constant connectivity is raising questions about cultural sensitivity, mental health and safety. Last year, it was reported that more people died from selfie-related deaths than shark attacks, and this June, two tourists in Peru plummeted to their deaths after losing footing while posing for photos. “Please put your phone down before you step off that cliff,” has become a common refrain from guides dealing with distracted travelers. The constant need to snap a pic also means more stopping throughout a journey, causing some outfitters to factor in photo time when developing their trips. “The speed of travel isn’t such a problem on an easy-going hiking trip, but on a challenging point-to-point bike ride, it is a significant factor when clients want to keep stopping to capture the experience,” said Paul Easto, co-founder of Wilderness Scotland.

Photography has been around for years, but the obsession with likes and dislikes has increasingly blurred people’s judgement about cultural sensitivities. Local people dressed in colorful traditional clothing suddenly become a Facebook highlight rather than human beings. “Imagine if someone walked into your home and just started snapping photos of your kids,” said Dan Moore, CEO of the travel industry consultancy, Pandion. “As guides, more than ever we have to remind our clients that it’s not appropriate to commodify humans because they look differently. That base level of respect isn’t as instinctual as it once was.”

The boom of social media postings is also changing the vibe in lodges and campsites. Rather than sit around a campfire and share the day’s experiences with fellow hikers, travelers are more likely to FaceTime with friends or catch up on Facebook news. “It’s definitely impacted the social interactions at the lodges,” said Enrique Umbert, owner of Mountain Lodges of Peru. “Many guests pull out their mobile phones and start connecting with friends and downloading photos as soon as they arrive at the lodges rather than jump in the shower or explore their surroundings, as they used to in the past.”

“As the trip goes on and the internet gets slower, people burn out and come back to actually interacting with each other.”

Even remote places like Everest Base Camp have seen a shift in the dynamic of how climbers interact as the world becomes more connected. Professional climber Adrian Ballinger, founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, has summited Everest six times and said hanging out at Base Camp doesn’t feel the same as it did six years ago. “The first few days of the trip, people are playing less cards and interacting less because they are lost in their social media tools,” he said. “As the trip goes on and the internet gets slower, people burn out and come back to actually interacting with each other.”

Are you going on vacation to talk about it or experience it? This has become the philosophical question many guides find themselves asking their guests. In an attempt to keep guests in the moment, adventure outfitters are implementing strategies from asking guests to surrender their phone at the start of a trip to having drone cameramen tag along to capture the experience so guests don’t need to worry about snapping the perfect shot.

Katalina Mayorga’s company El Camino Travel sends a professional photographer in tow, so that travelers can thoroughly enjoy their experiences while ensuring that they’ll have great social media content. A former international development consultant, Mayorga had her aha moment in May 2014 when she was traveling across Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán by water taxi. “Like every other tourist on the boat, I immediately grabbed my phone to snap photos of the surrounding volcanoes,” she recalled. “Then I looked up and saw how all the locals on the boat simply sat back and took in the view. I felt really silly and uncomfortable and thought, ‘shouldn’t we get lost in our own thoughts, rather than our phone?’”

When guests travel with El Camino, a photographer provides around 25 images at the end of each day which can be uploaded to social media via smartphone. “Our travelers often comment that they could have never captured such cool photos of themselves. They may have 50 selfies, but our photographer’s one shot of them jumping off of a catamaran or walking on the beach is so much better.” Mayorga doesn’t ban cameras or phones on the trips, but said few guests feel the need to take them out. “It’s remarkably different being on a trip where people don’t have their phone out the whole time,” Mayorga said. “It’s a whole different group dynamic and you get a more immersive experience.”

“I think it’s a positive thing to be able to use technology like Snapchat to expose our sport and a place like Everest to a wider audience.”

Not everyone is willing to surrender their creative license. “I don’t know if you can really rely on a single photographer to capture what 14 different sets of eyes see,” said Court Whelan, Director of Conservation Travel Programs at Natural Habitat Adventures. Even though Whelan’s clientele is older, averaging 55 to 75 years old, he said the majority show up on trips with $20,000 worth of professional-grade camera equipment. “When I ask what they plan to do with their photos, two out of every three said post them on Facebook.”

No matter who is taking the photos, the desire to make everything look shiny and polished or effortless yet extreme can be deceptive. A social post rarely tells the real story behind an experience or place. It’s often a best-of-the-best highlight reel that leaves out the selfie-stick-wielding crowds at Angkor Wat or the dozens of wipeouts before catching the perfect wave.

“One of our wider concerns at Wilderness Scotland is also how social media can dilute or understate the risk which is involved with certain activities,” Easto said. “We typically see the ‘edited highlights’ and it’s often difficult for the less informed viewer to determine just how risky or dangerous a certain climb, descent or route might be. In the production of any social content we’re always concerned with portraying an experience of controlled risk rather than one which might be perceived to be rad or gung-ho.”

As Instagram and Facebook become as highly edited and curated as magazines and film, Snapchat has emerged as the new medium for truth in travel. This past spring, Ballinger, along with climbing partner Cory Richards, showed an unfiltered view of what climbing Everest is like using Snapchat. They chronicled their 45-day attempt to summit Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen on their Snapchat account, EverestNoFilter, which, according to the team, garnered hundreds of thousands of views each day. “These experiences are so potentially selfish and sharing them with a wider audience feels a bit less selfish,” Ballinger said. Of the thousands of comments the feed received each day, many came from teachers sharing the expedition with their class. “I still get housewives who have definitely never climbed before approaching me and saying they woke up each day to watch our adventures on Snapchat. I think it’s a positive thing to be able to use technology like Snapchat to expose our sport and a place like Everest to a wider audience.”

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