In this social-media-driven day and age, it’s easy to see a picture someone posted on Instagram and think, “Damn, I’d look pretty good against that same backdrop, wouldn’t I?” Or even worse, “Damn, I went to that country and didn’t even see that super famous monument. Does that mean I never went there at all? Did I squander my chances of getting hundreds of likes?”
When we think of certain countries and cities, it’s easy to instantly associate them with their most recognizable landmark: Paris with the Eiffel Tower, India with the Taj Mahal, Budapest with the Hungarian Parliament Building, etc. Moreover, entire regions of certain countries have become so popular with tourists, such as Napa Valley in Northern California or Bali in Indonesia, that not going there almost feels like you’re shirking some responsibility to your social-media followers or risking a dangerous case of FOMO.
Often when we make travel decisions, we go places solely because they’re popular, and we know people will ask us about them when we get home or express their jealousy on Instagram — and we’re not even always aware we’re doing it. There’s a certain degree of pressure when traveling to countries with recognizable landmarks, and we have a tendency to make all our trips to look the same as this hilariously frustrating Instagram account, insta_repeat, pointed out.
We think that our friends expect us to visit these landmarks and might scratch their heads if we don’t. The Blue Lagoon might charge $250 to squeeze into a pool with hundreds of other Americans (towels not included), but can you really go to Iceland and skip the Blue Lagoon? The answer, of course, is yes. You can have an epic, month-long Iceland adventure without ever setting foot in the Blue Lagoon. You can take an eye-opening trip across India without glimpsing the Taj Mahal. And you can have an unforgettable, luxurious Indonesian vacation on any of its 922 inhabited Islands — it doesn’t have to be Bali.
Indeed, social media has become one of our primary methods of determining our travel plans. A study conducted by Schofields found that 40 percent of those under 33 prioritize “Instagrammability” when choosing their next vacation. In 2009, there were 500 visitors to Norway’s highly Instagrammable Trolltunga. By 2017, that number had increased to about 82,000. And in 2015, a tourist actually fell to her death there trying to replicate the same photograph taken by thousands of others. Recently, a trio of travel influencers tragically died at a waterfall in Canada in an attempt to get content for their followers. While social media can be valuable for finding cool locations to visit, it’s important that we don’t let it become the sole determining factor in our travel decisions — especially if the destination is, in fact, dangerous.
The key to a truly rewarding vacation is stripping away the frills and tuning out the noise. Forget social media, forget locations whose chief appeal is their photo backdrops, and forget how people might react to your travel decisions. When I told my friends I was going to Svalbard this past April instead of the more colorful Cancún or Playa del Carmen, reactions were mixed at best. While booking a trip to Mexico might have earned me some envious, “Omg I want your life,” Instagram comments, going to an archipelago in the Arctic required, well, a bit more explanation. The landscape didn’t provide vibrant, Instagram-friendly backgrounds; the excursions were a little more involved and stressful than laying on a beach all day; and comments on my Instagram pictures read something more like, “Um… why are you in the Arctic?” There might have been a dozen reasons not to go — and believe me, my friends pointed them all out — but there’s only one reason that matters: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so I did it. The rest is just noise.
If it’s always been your dream to visit the Louvre, by all means, go see it. If you’re a connoisseur of thermal spas and the Blue Lagoon is on your bucket list, you absolutely shouldn’t skip it. But if you find you’re going places for the wrong reasons or focusing too hard on getting that perfect waterfall picture, it might be time to reevaluate your travel goals.