Is social media ruining our adventure experiences?

First seen in Adventure Magazine, December 2017

Sitting atop my Canadian canoe, I listen to water lapping gently on the side of the boat and let it lull me into a false sense of serenity. Gadgets stashed deep in its bowels, I leave the endless sprawl of Auckland behind along with any residual work anxieties.

I’m out here in the wilderness exploring the Whanganui River, it’s towering canyon walls, dripping rich with moss and the weaving slot canyons that branch off from it’s body. A kaleidoscope of green weaving around me and an orchestra of birdsong to keep me company.

I haven’t felt such a sense of freedom in a long time and I’m reminded how important it is to switch off, get back to nature and recalibrate. No Wi-Fi, no computer, no phone signal and no Netflix – just me and one of New Zealand’s most wild places. Getting out in nature for me is like deleting my browser history and starting over. I’m a new woman.

Nearby I can hear a torrent of white water swirling from a ravine like white noise. The vertical maze of sandstone is too deep to see the end, and too tempting not to be explored, so I navigate from course determined to discover this waterfall. As steep walls squeeze in on my heavily laden boat, I tie off to rouge vines and scramble the remaining path in waist-deep snow-melt. Blinded by my own naivety, I think I’m the only one here and let my ego guide me deeper into the abyss.

Yet as soon as I’d dreamed it, the illusion was shattered. Around the next bend I’m greeted with crowds and my wilderness adventure is feeling more like Times Square. High-frequency drones offer a pōwhiri onto the meeting ground, and the taiaha of this scared place- a vast collection selfie-sticks. What on earth had I walked into? And how did tourists even find this location? The inner-most reaches of New Zealand’s wild places had been exposed and discovered via social media – and you know the worst part? I’m one of the many people adding fuel to the fire.

The scent of ego and desperation stained the air as people grappled to capture that perfect image, jostling amongst each other to frame an image free from the crowds. A need to socially document and broadcast this experience their main motivator – cameras and viewfinders become the portal to view this scene instead of simply enjoying the experience for what it is, with our eyes, ears and hearts. A modern day occurrence that is threatening our wilderness places and along with it how we experience them.

You see, each day we’re fed glossy imagery on social media of stunning and remote travel destinations. Whether this be from destination marketers, social influencers, or our own friends; we scroll that newsfeed of cherry-picked images and are presented with a picture of what our perfect life should be. A life in nature where the selfie-stick-wielding crowds are nowhere to be seen, where our mundane office existence is just a distant memory and everything presented glittering and good. But this shiny existence is so polished that it rarely tells the real story behind an experiences or place. This imagery is just fuelling our FOMO (fear of missing out) and an innate desire to keep up with the Joneses. As our friends share this imagery, we must too in order to project this perfect version of ourselves and our holidays. Instant gratification coming from the likes and comments, thus fuelling a cycle of snap, share and repeat. Fuelling a cycle of viewing everything through our phones instead of just taking in the moment.

What’s more, this sharing and public geo-tagging of images allows users to quickly tie their photographs to real-world locations via GPS when they’re publicized on social media. The implications being that locations are then easier to find for the next visitor. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle and I’m not here preaching from my high horse as a travel journalist, since I’m contributing to the problem too. But it’s worth considering for a moment how the act of social sharing might impact our remote destinations and conversation areas.

Destination Marketers recognize the power that social media has over our daily lives, and are now developing marketing campaigns delivered solely through Facebook and Instagram. Tourism New Zealand states that over 50 percent of all travellers are inspired to visit destinations after seeing their friend share associated images on social media. Moreso, 87 percent of millennials on Facebook state that social media is their main source of travel inspiration. Statistics proving that the importance of these platforms to the future of the travel industry is unprecedented.

At a regional level, organizations like Lake Wanaka Tourism are hosting #instameets and engaging social influencers to promote their regions to a wider audience, piggybacking on their reach and authenticity. Superstars of the social realm, these people have aspirational identities yet resonate so well with audiences because they create real content and get honest engagement. In the social media world, if a travel influencer puts up a picture and says “How awesome is this location?” it’s so much more genuine than a brand doing the same thing and saying “How awesome are we?” The success of this approach is unprecedented and the headlines are shouting “New Zealand's South Island undergoing tourism boom, all thanks to stunning Instagram posts”, published by Lonely Planet last year. Official statistics show Lake Wanaka’s inbound arrivals increasing 14% year on year since they launched this social strategy.

So here lies the face-off between social media and travel. On one hand, we continue to fall in love with remote travel destinations the same as we always did, except now we share these experiences on social media next to a handful of heart-shaped emojis and #hashtags. The growth in this sharing economy, along with our use of geotags is doing wonders for the tourism economy and those struggling mum and pop tourism operators who historically found it difficult to get tourists into their regions. It’s a destination-marketing dream and we’re using this to our advantage, growing small businesses and alleviating the stress peak-season has on our tourism hotspots.

Yet getting out in nature has always been the primary means of unplugging from daily life and reconnecting with our earthly instincts. In the wise words of Henry David Thoreau:

“We need the tonic of wilderness… 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 of wilderness still have this same effect on us when we’re experiencing it remotely through cellular devices? And can we still consider this living in the moment when armed with an arsenal of technology?

I ponder this as I navigate my way back down the ravine, thankful for the one time I left my phone in the canoe. Water up to my chest and the slick grip of mud on my fingertips, I take a mental picture and slide back into the uncrowded lanes of rivers way. At least I have this moment uninterrupted...

Would love to hear your thoughts on the above article. Do you think social media enhances or destroys our wilderness experiences?

BlogOcean Belcher