So­cial me­dia has turned tourists into vir­tual sheep

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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