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As Vienna rallies against Instagram, is it time to ‘unhashtag’ travel everywhere?

The Independent logo The Independent 05/12/2018 Cathy Adams, Helen Coffey
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Why we should all use Instagram on holiday

Cathy Adams

It all started on 3 January 2012. That was the date of my first ever Instagram upload. It was of a saucer of tea in some dingy burlesque club near Chancery Lane. It got zero likes – probably because who drinks tea at a burlesque club? Things got better from there.

5 April 2014: 11 people liked a picture of me posing with a giant frozen margarita in Tijuana. Nine people liked a picture of my feet standing on a glass floor on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower in Chicago a few months later. This summer, countless people commented on the braggy snaps of me swimming in glass-clear waters in the Maldives (because… Maldives).

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Disappointingly, only 48 people liked a picture of me at my wedding, whereas 137 liked a candid (ish) pic of me laughing with Gordon Ramsay at his Bread Street Kitchen in Hong Kong.

You always remember the numbers. As a natural egotist, uploading a carefully curated snap to the channel and watching the likes roll in makes me feel all kind of zippy. After all, these Instagrams have timestamped my life since 2012.

That’s not to say that Instagram doesn’t often behave. The bad things are myriad: waiting for Instagrammers to take pictures of your pancakes at brunch, or then artfully arranging your coffee and sunglasses and Moleskine around a cold plate of eggs. Trying to enjoy the pink-purple-blue sunset on Bali’s Seminyak beach and finding you have a row of Instagram screens blocking the view. Or the ninth circle of Instagram hell, which is queueing for a snap of Santorini’s sunset or for the small-time sunflower field in Canada which banned visitors thanks to Instagram overload.

These are bad things, but it doesn’t mean Instagram is a Bad Thing: even if the Vienna Tourism Board currently thinks differently.

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Its current campaign “See Vienna, not #Vienna” is asking tourists to “see the city behind your pics”. It’s a progressive idea, particularly because so much destination marketing rests on the halo effect on social media. (Although its Instagram page, endorsed by almost 100,000 people, is still asking snappers to share ‘Vienna pics by including #ViennaNow’.) 

It’s a clever campaign, but one that rather bites the hand that feeds. Some Instagrammers might be badly behaved, but on the whole the platform is a force for good, especially in travel, and destinations should use to it their advantage.

Mostly because of the staggering number of users. More than one in eight of us globally have Instagram. Users upload 400 million Instagram Stories a day. There are commercial gains, too: more than 72 per cent of users have bought something they saw on Instagram, according to Business Insider. For a tourist board, this provides a rich seam of free (free!) content, even if many of the snaps don’t deserve to be hung on the mantelpiece. Even the Vienna Tourism Board isn’t above using Instagram indirectly to promote its new campaign.

Few people argue that being more connected than ever before – through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or even, howl, LinkedIn – is a bad thing. After all, it’s the primary reason so many people travel: they want to be connected to another world. Instagram facilitates that, albeit virtually. When I lived abroad, Instagram was one of the many platforms I had at my disposal to give a sneak flavour into my life in Asia. (Instagram was for delicious food pictures, Twitter was for snark.) It was also useful when I didn’t want to have janky Skype calls with friends/editors/my mother – they could simply check into my Instagram to figure out where I was and what I was looking at.

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For journalists, no platform can be discounted: we need all the tools we can get to understand our audience. And if our audience is on Instagram, then we need to be on Instagram too. Especially working in travel, where spectacular images are so important to help sell a destination (alongside, ahem, fantastic words). Personally, Instagram has given me work opportunities I wouldn’t have found elsewhere: I’ve been commissioned to write features based on the destinations I’ve tagged myself in via Instagram, although I’m still waiting for a blurry photo of a cityscape to be bought by a picture editor…

That brings me on to my next point: Instagram is great for meeting new people and picking up tips. Often I’ve geotagged myself in a particular destination and locals have messaged me about some cool new restaurant, a must-visit tea shop, or even offered to meet up for a beer to show me around. A photo I posted of the rust-red National Museum of Cambodia last year prompted a friend to message and say she was in Phnom Penh at the same time – and did we want to grab a Khmer beer later?

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Then there’s the inspiration side of Instagram. I once organised a bucket-list trip to Tanzania based on a photo so flat-out spectacular that I knew I’d have to see it for myself. A journalist I followed (in the days before influencers) had snapped a picture of herself in an infinity pool at a safari lodge in the Serengeti, overlooking a watering hole. And so two weeks of annual leave was booked around visiting that particular lodge. I didn’t get the same shot (or even want to) but watching elephants bathing in the water while lazing in a cool kidney pool was every bit as blockbuster as the Instagram snap promised. And really – how is booking a holiday based on an Instagram post any different from flicking through an analogue Thomas Cook catalogue?

Travellers forget that Instagram is also practical, because it’s real-time information. The app holds a mine of data. How big are the queues at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam? Check Stories tagged at that location. What is the weather like for a weekend trip to Berlin – are people snapped in light jackets or thick coats? Is it currently bucketing it down in Hong Kong? All you have to do is check out a handful of the 95 million (ish) posts per day.

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Yes, unplugging from Instagram while on holiday might mean you notice how gorgeously rococo Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace is. But by snapping an Instagram of it, you’ve given yourself a memory to return to again and again. The world is better when we’re connected to it. And in this miserablist world, sometimes it just helps to have a nice picture to look at.

Why we should all take a leaf out of Vienna’s book and unhashtag our lives

Helen Coffey

Gazing out over the picturesque expanse of Lisbon from my hotel’s rooftop bar, its pastel-shaded, higgledy-piggledy buildings interspersed with verdant trees, I try to take it all in. The sky, amber-hued as the sun sets; the Tagus river and accompanying Ponte 25 de Abril, sparkling roguishly in the distance; the storybook-perfect Castelo St Jorge, set high upon a hill in all its glory. I look and look and look – but I don’t reach for my smartphone.

Yes, ladies and gentleman – I may be the only travel writer on the planet who doesn’t have Instagram. I’m not alone but I certainly seem to be in the minority; friends and colleagues never fail to meet my app absenteeism with disbelief.

“But you go to all those amazing places!” they say. “It’s such a waste!”

My standard response is a curt, “I don’t like taking photos or looking at other people’s.” Which usually stumps them.

They’re right in one respect. I do get the opportunity to visit some phenomenal spots – luxury hotels with infinity pools, white sand beaches lapped by cobalt waves, Michelin-starred restaurants with tasting menus so damn good I feel drunk on decadence. (Do you hate me yet?)

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Much of it is Insta-heaven, just begging to be caught, captioned and catapulted onto the internet’s favourite photo-sharing platform. But, while I obviously love heading out into the world to explore and experience, I haven’t the slightest desire to distil each destination into one staged shot, timed to perfection and filtered beyond all recognition.

And now there’s at least one place which won’t expect that of me, one place that actively discourages such behaviour despite the allegedly increasing influence of “Instagrammability” as a factor in people’s holiday choices.

Vienna’s bold new tourism campaign, Unhashtag Vienna, is targeting the social media generation with a simple message – put down the smartphone and enjoy the moment instead. Signs reading “See Vienna, not #Vienna” are there to greet visitors at the airport and, for the month of November, the tourist information office on Albertinaplatz will be giving out instant cameras with just 10 shots. The aim is that tourists spend less time snapping and more time actually experiencing.

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It might seem antagonistic to some but to me it’s plain refreshing. I salute Vienna for both their innovation and bravery in daring to suggest that perhaps there might be a better way to see a city than through a screen.

Long before I became a travel writer I started to resent the impact smartphones had on travel – and on all activities, come to think of it. Dining with a friend and them only half listening while I shared my news, their attention far more invested in an ever-changing news feed; going on trips where I had to repeatedly wait out of shot before I could sit down as colleagues secured the desired pic; watching the sunset, my view marred by a hundred obtrusive, winking camera phones. I could go on.

I’m not Amish. Of course I recognise that social media isn’t without its blessings and benefits. There’s just something about it that seems to suck all of our attention, vampire-like, in a deeply uncomfortable way. And there’s something about the aspirational quality of Instagram that sells us a dream – particularly when it comes to travel – filtering out the ugly, the uncomfortable or the just plain boring, until all that’s left are the bright and shiny parts. It kind of sets a place up to fail. How can the reality ever live up to the over-saturated promise? How can a “bucket-list destination” ever be more than a slight disappointment?

Travel influencers also have a lot to answer for when it comes to promoting “bad behaviour” to get the money shot. Just this month, blogger and influencer Patricia, otherwise known as One Ocean Away, was called out for posting a picture of herself walking on railway tracks while a train travelled towards her – some said it could encourage others to emulate her in a more dangerous setting.

Of course, all that’s only half the story. Truth time: what really freaks me out about Instagram is the idea of how closely tied my fragile ego would be to my travels.

It would be nice to think that, when we post things on social media, it’s done merely for the pleasure of sharing our lives and connecting with others; we just want to be part of that big, beautiful conversation.

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It would be nice – but it wouldn’t be true. For most of us, it’s the endorphin rush of seeing those numbers climb – follows, likes, shares, comments – that keeps us coming back for more. Whether we like it or not, we are all approval junkies for whom those figures are inherently bound up in our self-worth. In the era of the ubiquitous selfie, it seems inevitable to associate thousands of likes with the idea that thousands of people like you; and, conversely, that a dearth of interactions means you’re essentially an online pariah.

It happens on every platform, but Instagram is one of the worst offenders when it comes to making us feel our value can be measured numerically – particularly as statistics show that pictures with people in tend to perform better than those without. Ergo, people are judging you as much as they are the backdrop, whether it be Kyoto’s bamboo forest, Santorini’s blue-capped buildings or Singapore’s rooftop infinity pool.

To be frank, I just don’t think I could hack it. I can already see how things would go – here’s me enjoying that Lisbon skyline. Here’s me honing the shot to find the best angle, filtering it so the buildings really pop, cropping out the messy table in front of me. Here’s me posting it. And, several hours later, here’s me checking it, and rechecking it, and rechecking it, ad infinitum, to see how many interactions I’ve had. I ignore the sweeping landscape before me; I ignore the cocktail in my glass; I even ignore the person sitting opposite me. I don’t need a crystal ball to see my inescapable Instagram future.

Instead, free from such constraints, I’m able to live – not just in the moment, but in the place. I devour the view with my eyes, rather than observing it second hand. I savour each sip of my velvety espresso martini. I talk and listen and laugh with my companion, who is far more deserving of my attention than a collection of strangers online.

Forget Unhashtag Vienna – I reckon it’s high time we unhashtag the world.

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