There are more than 1,000 places on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and it should probably come as no surprise that there is a strong correlation between this list and the list of the most Instagrammed places on the planet. Sites like Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza and Granada’s Alhambra and the Taj Mahal are incredibly photogenic and it is no surprise that they appear so frequently on social media.
Yet there is a forceful argument that social media and Instagram in particular is contributing enormously to the overtourism of these sites. Take an article in National Geographic, ‘How Instagram Is Changing Travel’, for example.
Various pieces of research such as ‘The influence of Instagram on consumers’ travel planning and destination choice’ and this older research by Google show the importance of social networks and Instagram, in particular as a source of travel inspiration. One recent study reported in The Independent newspaper found that more than two-fifths of millennials choose their travel destination based on its ‘Instagrammability’. The survey was not scientifically rigorous but it is certainly food for thought for destination marketers.
I was recently in Cambodia and visited Angkor Wat, a site that features on both lists. But what many know as Angkor Wat is actually just the main temple complex in a vast site that includes more than hundreds of temples on a site that encompasses some 400 square kilometres. Many of the other temples are equally amazing. Anyone who has been to the main temple will know just how big the crowds are there from dawn till dusk; visiting a secondary temple gives you a much better chance to get those elusive people-free shots for Instagram.
Angkor Wat, like many World Heritage sites, has seen a huge boost in the number of visitors. 25 years ago, only a few thousand tourists visited – in 2016, this number had increased to more than 2.2 million, according to Tourism Cambodia’s annual report.
There are a number of radical solutions to overtourism. Angkor Wat has almost doubled its entrance prices this year. In Australia, the more than a quarter of a million people who visit Uluru will be banned from climbing it from October 2019. In Peru, drastic new rules on tourist numbers have been introduced at Machu Picchu.
Yet is this the right approach? Perhaps the answer is to ban Instagrammers from taking pictures of them instead?
I joke and the solutions are far from easy. That does not mean we should not think hard about the problems.