We live in a peculiar time, wherein experiences are hunted and collected like Pokémon for distribution on social media. In the age of over sharing and digital influencers, there are many among us who take themselves to beautiful and out of the way places with the sole intention of snapping the perfect Instagram photo. The adage ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ has become quite literal, with some of us requiring the validation of our experiences through likes.
Machu Picchu, the breathtaking ancient Incan city wedged between mountains in Peru, has become a popular destination for Instagrammers to don a traditional Poncho and take ‘zen’ photos in amongst the well preserved relic of the historical civilisation. In fact, in 2014, over 1.2 million people visited the site, which eclipsed previous years’ attendance, and broke the 2,500 visitors per day limit. Plans are now afoot to limit numbers further by 2019, with tourists having to hire a guide and follow one of three designated paths to access the site. The Greek island of Santorini has suffered a similar fate – the now iconic blue roof tops, white walls and crystal blue sea have become synonymous with European travel Instagram posts. Tourist numbers are now so high that the island has imposed a limit on the number of cruise ship visitors per year, capping it at 8,000 per day after it reached a record high of 10,000 in 2015.
Now, this trend has struck closer to home in Australia, and it is set to radically alter some of our most coveted natural landscapes.
Tasmania is a stunning place, full of of wildly varied and utterly engrossing landscapes. Due in part to the undulating, mountainous terrain there are vast swathes of the island that are completely different from one another – dry, arid bushland, dense rainforests, and snow capped mountains sit side by side, geographically similar to Bolivia in that sense. Professional photographer Jason Futrill is now warning that Instagram tourists searching for the hidden away natural gems of Tasmania are destroying the very wonders they are seeking to capture. In a post on his blog, Futrill noted that waterfalls and alpine areas were being trampled by budding Instagrammers who are looking to recreate versions of shots they’ve come across online.
Futrill spent a large chunk of time photographing the natural wonders of Tasmania, and subsequently admits his share of the blame. The damage to some of the areas has come as a direct result of his own photos being shared on the internet. Futrill outlines a series of events which began with positive reactions to photos of his, followed by requests for the location, followed by more and more travel accounts sharing it, leading people to add the location to their Tasmanian itinerary. A steady stream of bushwalkers began making their way to a particularly fragile spot – the Chasm Falls in the Meander State Forest.
“I was the first to publish it (Chasm Falls) to a large social media profile and literally a week later a huge amount of traffic started to go into the area,” he explained in an interview with the ABC. “I’ve been in recently and all of the moss has gone. The whole area had just become degraded now as a result of sharing that location. It will never recover.” The reason that the area looks so beautiful, and the reason it has become a hot destination for Instagrammers, is because of the stunning carpet-like moss that covers the area. This sensitive moss takes decades to grow – and once it is trampled on, that’s it. It will take decades to return.
The stunning Secret Falls in Wellington National Park outside of Hobart has suffered a similar fate. As photographers endeavour to capture their own unique angles of the natural wonder and set up the perfect shot, they inadvertently destroy the space. “There’s literally tracks that are just now mudslides. All of the ferns, the foliage, the moss — everything that used to be in there — has just been torn out because people don’t respect the area.”
Futrill has conceded that part of the problem is Tourism Tasmania. The state’s tourism body has naturally reaped the benefits of the spike in Instagram interest, drawing throes of people to the island and subsequently injecting money into the economy. Their Instagram account, @tasmania, has almost 380,000 followers, and their somewhat tone-deaf reposting of photos from Wilderness World Heritage Areas is encouraging more and more tourists to flock to these areas with the goal of capturing their perfect shot. While areas like the Bruny Island Neck Lookout and the Three Capes Track are open to tourists, they simply aren’t equipped to handle the influx they are receiving. “The whole point of them being designated ‘World Heritage’ (is so that) they’re protected forever. (Tourism Tasmania) are not thinking about the environmental protection — that’s not the message they’re delivering,” Futrill explained.
The images shared on the Tourism Tasmania Instagram feed promote the locations as tourist destinations, while also bolstering the accounts of the original posters. A spokesperson for Tourism Tasmania explained, in response to the environmental concerns surrounding the issue that they “consider a number of elements when selecting images for reposting, that show a range of travel experiences to appeal to a broad range of travellers, interests and activity levels, including a spread of images from across Tasmania’s regions. Tourism Tasmania regularly reinforces the ‘leave no trace’ or ‘pack it in, pack it out’ messages when sharing images of wilderness areas.” However, the problem is not leaving no trace – the problem is the simple weight of human feet in droves across areas which have never experienced that before, and cannot sustain it.