Social media has turned tourists into virtual sheep
On each of my four visits to Paris I’ve struggled to find the place remotely romantic. Instead, “the city of love” has always struck me as something of an overpriced, surly and sprawling mess. Undeniably picturesque, in parts, but worth the hype? From my personal experience, no – a few tacky red roses or heart-shaped chocolates won’t pull the wool over my eyes.
Equally, the month I spent driving 2,500 miles through India, from the Himalayas to Kerala, didn’t result in a “spiritual” awakening, as almost every guidebook lazily predicts, but an unfathomably chaotic journey, forever illustrated in my memory with piles of stinking human detritus and the rotting carcasses of dogs. On the flip side, “unfriendly Sydney” has only ever been good to me, and I didn’t find New Yorkers to be remotely rude.
The point is that travel stereotypes and generalisations are now used as flippantly as hashtags, and if we’re not careful, we’ll drift worryingly deeper into regurgitated flimflam. Our perception of the planet, and the countries and societies within, won’t be shaped and reshaped by our ongoing, individual experiences but remain typecast in response of our shared fear of bucking the trend. We risk cultural appropriation on an epic scale.
I started pondering this thought a fortnight ago, following the seething consternation from some friends and readers that I dared to have a different opinion on the subject of children in pubs. It was a topic that certainly hit a nerve, but it got me thinking about how going against the grain – especially when it comes to travel and destinations – almost always raises eyebrows. Why are we so scared just to tell it how we see it? We are all individuals, after all – and everyone is entitled to an opinion.
A constantly shifting narrative as complex and diverse as Planet Earth deserves a continuous rewrite, based on each of our seven billion equally valid perspectives. In the modern echo chamber of social media, however, I fear our pack mentality is now very much the norm – egging us on to recycle the same generic dross. Furthermore, governmentfunded tourist boards have got their carefully constructed brands on tight lockdown, like chief whips. In the past 12 months I’ve been criticised by two, for seeing their destinations through a pair of not-so-rose-tinted glasses.
We live in a deceitful era in which our newsfeeds have been corrupted by algorithms – serving up more of what we like, and less of what we don’t. This sees our opinions challenged on fewer and fewer occasions. Equally, most of us only ever read the same newspaper or watch the same television news bulletin – is it any wonder that our ideas of the world are becoming homogenised, perpetuated with lackadaisical platitudes? Hopefully as travel writers we can do our part, but I think we’d all confess to veering into cliché at one point or another.
Despite their critics, I found last year’s and the BBC’s latest celeb-fronted travelogue,
Following the crowd: China’s Great Wall