Aug. 16, 2023

Using social media to plan your trip may not turn out the way you want

While digital connectivity opens doors for travellers, it's not without its pitfalls
Social media and tourism
Hikers capture the moment on their smartphones while climbing a peak in South Africa. Flickr photo by Matthew Baldwin, published under Creative Commons licence

In an era dominated by digital connectivity, social media has dramatically changed the way individuals communicate, shop, work, and even the way they explore the world.  

By providing unlimited access to information around the globe, social media has fundamentally altered the landscape of travel for those who are connected. Serving as the catalyst behind a new wave of tourism, social media molds our perceptions, choices, and experiences through online exploration or exposure, information sharing, and community building.  

Before social media, individuals often found travel inspiration through traditional media sources such as radio broadcasts, travel shows, books, the travel section of the weekend newspaper, and glossy magazines. While these forms of media still play a role in sparking wanderlust, they are limited in terms of interaction and personalization. 

Traveller empowerment

“One of the greatest abilities of social media, and the reason it has changed travel and tourism, is its ability to eradicate geographical boundaries and time,” says Rebecca Wissink, first-year PhD student in the Department of Communication, Media, and Film at the University of Calgary.

“With traditional media, travellers used to have to wait for the information to come to them, leaving them reliant on curated narratives. Nowadays, we have unlimited access to information, allowing us to seek out precisely what we desire, even if that destination isn't a popular travel spot.”  

The transparency offered by user-generated social media content empowers travellers with real-time information about destinations, accommodations, and experiences, leaving individuals more assured. Moreover, it empowers travellers to tailor their experiences according to personal preferences. 

Accommodation choices, hidden gems, and off-the-beaten-path adventures are now influenced by a digital collective, creating a sense of ownership over one's travel narrative. Recommendations from friends, influencers, and online communities ensure that each journey is uniquely tailored.  

“Social media allows us to community build with like-minded people despite geographical distance,” explains Wissink. “This gives travellers the ability to explore very specific travel interests or travel that aligns to our lived experience, such as travel that is deemed safe by those with the same ethnicity or gender as us.

“This shift has led to the rise of niche travel, such as dark tourism, where individuals visit places historically associated with death and tragedy, like Jeffrey Dahmer's house or the Chernobyl site. Additionally, we are seeing a rise in other niche travel markets such as ecotourism, voluntourism, sports tourism, etc.”

However, viewers beware! While user-generated content is often believed to be more authentic and trustworthy than traditional advertising, we have also seen a rise in social media influencers and brand ambassadors. These digital trendsetters showcase idyllic locations, culinary delights, and cultural encounters, effectively steering their followers toward specific destinations.

This curated, and perhaps even filtered, nature of social media can sometimes warp reality, leading to unrealistic expectations and disappointments.

“We need to be curious about how social media influences our travel decisions. Always remember that these influencers are being paid to direct your attention in a specific way, and to highlight a certain brand or destination,” advises Wissink.

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