I Wanted To Be a Travel Influencer — Now What?
The carbon footprint of Insta travel
Scrolling through Instagram and other social media we see successful people living perfect lives, always in new locations, seeming to have no money struggles, doing what they love while exploring beaches and cities, eating exotic street food and making photoshoots at gorgeous sightseeing spots all year long. You can see them swimming in expensive pools, visiting treehouse communities, checking out crazy resorts or guest houses, meeting with locals, being in a wonderland made of snow and northern lights or chasing the sun. They are on an adventure every single day, capturing it all with the newest camera gear and making it look effortless to live this lifestyle.
I guess you know who I am talking about: Travel Influencers.
Why I wanted to be one of them
Not long ago, I wanted to be one of them. My goal was to live like them. To become a digital nomad, to work location independently and as little as possible, to live in constant summer and checking off country after country from my map of visited places.
It looked like the solution to all my problems, like the perfect life. I would never be bored. I would see the world. I would meet locals and travelers and all kinds of people. My passport would be filled with stamps and stories. I would explore and experience and capture everything on camera to show to everyone.
Waking up from an illusion
The plan was to start this lifestyle after my graduation from university. I had my technical equipment, as well as my GoPro and my laptop. My blog was ready to go and I was already reaching out into the scene of content creators. But funnily enough, this time was also when I woke up from the illusion social media had carved into my mind.
In my final thesis, I wrote about digital nomads and during my research I had to realize that the magic was all fake. Yes, of course, the lifestyle has many benefits, but the reality is far less romantic than I thought. Jetlags, a constant hunt for a good internet connection, finding new and exciting and beautiful content that would get you as many clicks and likes as possible, bound to the mercy of social media platforms and algorithms, always figuring out paperwork and a place to stay, long hours in the light of the laptop screen, editing photos and thinking of marketing strategies.
But what threw me off the most was that there is no real meaning behind all of this but their own personal pleasure and finding validation in strangers liking their online presence. Most of the content does not add anything of true value but rather offers distractions and a dangerous “inspiration”.
While there is nothing wrong with doing something for your own enjoyment or to find comfort in the approval of others, being a travel influencer comes at a cost I was not willing to pay.
The real influence of influencers
As with all media, most content creators underestimate the power they have. By showing off the beauty of a place or a lifestyle, they are creating an increased interest and therefore more movement towards this direction. If you want to be an influencer, you need to be aware of your influence and therefore your responsibility.
There is nothing wrong with traveling and sharing stories from around the globe. There have always been explorers around who tell tales from far-off lands to the people at home. But we are living in a digitalized and globalized world that is already connected and has way more people than it used to have. If everyone is on the move all the time and hunts down adventures and photo spots, there will be nothing left.
Think about why it is illegal to take sand from so many beaches: It is not harmful if one person takes a handful of sand. But if every person that visits this beach does the same, the beach will be gone in no time. Everyone will have a conquered piece at home but the place where it got its magic from will be nothing but a memory. By promoting constant and careless travel, influencers are promoting the loss of the beautiful places they created their entire lifestyle around.
And to be honest: We do not need more privileged white people to talk about their holidays in “exotic places” when we could listen to the people actually living there.
The carbon footprint of Insta Travel
Let’s pretend I never changed my mind and I became the successful travel influencer I wanted to be. And within a month I would fly from Germany via Dubai to Bali, drive with my rented moped around 100km on the island and from there I fly to Delhi, where I drive another 100km with a rented moped. My last stop is Kathmandu which I reach with a few trains. I eat and drink in all of these places, stay in hotels, hostels or other accommodations, maybe my camera breaks, maybe I need some medicine.
One month in, I am already over 5 tons of CO2. Now multiple it for living like this year-long you are at around 64 tons. In Europe, the average lies at 6,4 tons per year. If we want to fight climate change the average should be at two tons. (source: https://www.carbonfootprint.com/)
Of course, this is a very wild and vague guess from my part and it heavily depends on the way you travel, how much you fly, etc. But that’s not the point.
If one person does this, the impact is low. However, in this scenario, I am an influencer. Not only one of many but also an inspiration to a broad audience that will now want to live more like me and visit the places I showed off so nicely on my platforms. I increase mass tourism by advertising a lifestyle that is the opposite of sustainable.
This also does not include the secondary damage that is done on so many levels. From plastic pollution, eroding landscapes, ocean warming and pollution, disturbance of wildlife, exploiting the locals, empowering capitalism, increasing the number of hotels, Airbnbs and rent-a-cars and therefore influencing the renting market and landscape of cities, shifting entire economies into dependencies and often disrespecting cultures and traditions. The list is endless and includes even more complex topics like drones, politics and sex trafficking.
Even climbing mountains can be fatal, as some become so popular that not only the endemic vegetation suffers from the climbs but the remains of humans (garbage, tents, feces and in some extreme cases even corpses) make the place a nightmare dedicated to destruction. If you do not believe me, look up the most famous mountain of them all: Mount Everest.
The most innocent act of all
The biggest harm might even be done by the most innocent act of all: Taking a photograph.
It is not only problematic due to the influence it can have in regards to advertising places and romanticizing constant and sometimes even reckless traveling, but many photos are capturing people and places without permission or consent. And way too many times they destroy the very place they want to tell a story about.
There are countless articles online about destroyed landscapes because everyone wants to re-create the perfect photos they have seen online where an influencer stands in the middle of, instead of close by, a certain attraction or even ripping out plants as props and just acting careless for the ultimate shot. Examples include the lavender fields of France and England, the Icelandic moss, the poppy bloom at Lake Elsinore in California, the island of Santorini, specific streets like the Rue Crémieux in Paris and a variety of natural parks.
What to do instead
Even if a travel influencer does everything right on their journey, respecting the nature and the people, choosing slow travel and trying to cause as little pollution and damage as possible, the people they influence might not. So what can people who are, or dream of being, a travel influencer, do better?
- Hold yourself accountable — do not make excuses for your own comfort and be aware of your impact on all levels.
- Talk about the issues that come with the lifestyle and traveling in general, your own struggles and the ones you are inflicting on others / the environment
- Empower the local people both in your real life as well as on your digital platforms
- Travel as sustainable as possible — respect nature, culture and all living beings at all times
- Always ask yourself: Do I really need to experience this myself? Do I need to post about this? Am I adding anything of value? Will my actions inflict harm short- or long-term?
- If you truly travel to see the beauty of the world, make sure it stays beautiful
The end to all journeys?
As for me, my dreams made a 180 degree turn. I had to realize that my dream of becoming a travel influencer was motivated by my own ignorance and selfishness.
I canceled my plans. Stopped the blog. Threw away my bucket list. Unfollowed everyone who is only in it for money, fame and free vacations. Started to grow my own food and got into a sustainable lifestyle. Discovered the importance of a local community. Started to educate myself actively about Indigenous Issues and what I can do to empower the voices that need to be heard. Looked up La Vía Campesina and other movements that enable alternatives.
I still travel. Sometimes. In fact, I moved to the Azores, but that is another story. I am not perfect. I still post stuff online. I still enjoy taking pictures and sharing them. I am still fascinated by the beauty of the world. I worked in tourism for a while. But I now look at the small portions of sand I have collected in the past with a strong feeling of guilt and shame. My desire to see everything with my own two eyes has faded. I am learning, or rather un-learning.
I realized that happiness can be found in many places and in many ways, but that I’d rather settle for less adventure and a healthier planet than for likes and jetlags. I am holding myself accountable and recognize my responsibility in all of this.
There are many reasons to travel. To influence others to do the same and make a living of this should not be one of them. Especially not during a time when radical action is needed to protect what is still left of nature and to stop climate change. The places we are so fond of and sights shown off on Instagram need our protection, not some virtual likes and another thousand visitors.