Is Online Travel Media Causing Overtourism?

waterfalls and green hills on Flores Island, Azores
One of the most famous natural attractions on Flores Island, Azores

“Hidden gems”, “must-sees”, and “bucket list” have completely lost meaning in the last five years I’ve been a travel blogger. And it’s not because the world has been completely explored and there’s nothing unique left to see. The truth is travel bloggers and travel journalists seem to always be traveling to the same spots, Instagramming the same locations (all perfectly geotagged by the thousands of people who have been there before us), and using the same boring, unimaginative descriptions. They’re good for the search engine gods (meaning lots of clicks that translate into ad revenue) and the readers skimming the online content are frequently least interested in quality writing.

A couple of months back, I shared two articles on Facebook regarding the role of online media on overtourism. In both articles, “When Your Secret Spot (Lisbon) Becomes Overrated” by Thomas Swick and “I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It” by Kevin Alexander, the authors acknowledged their role in bringing too much attention to one place, eventually ruining it forever. Well, as dramatic as it sounds, and as much as I believe we have to be responsible for every piece of content we publish, there are things we can’t control. Swick couldn’t predict Lisbon would become such a popular tourist destination. Alexander didn’t know that the real reason why that burger place closed had little to do with the thousands of people he had attracted to the restaurant (an editor’s note has been added to the top of the article to explain the root causes of that business’ problems).

After publishing The Impact of Overtourism in Lisbon, talking to Skift on the issue, helping a Masters’ student figure out a solution for mass tourism in Lisbon, and talking to Green City Trips about traveling “like a local”, it became clear that online media had an important role in preventing tourism decline and educating tourists. Traveling is still a very self-indulging action.

It also became clear that it would be an uneven battle for those of us who focus on sustainable travel and worry about protecting a place’s cultural identity.

I never write blog posts about blogging, not here on Tripper anyway. But I needed to get a couple of things off my chest regarding online travel content (whether it’s produced by travel bloggers or travel journalists; I’ve seen least positive examples on both sides).

So, is online travel media causing overtourism? Not if we start turning this around. And this can be done by making little adjustments to the travel content we choose to put online.

Don’t promote destinations as “cheap” and “affordable”

Yes, I am aware that nothing else increases click-through rates like blunt adjectives like “cheap” and “affordable” destinations. But you know what? For people who live there life might not be as “cheap” and as “affordable” as it is for tourists visiting.

Now, imagine the snowball effect: a destination is promoted as cheap or affordable, some local businesses increase prices to meet the tourists’ standards of what cheap and affordable is, locals feel pushed out of their homelands.

I see a difference between bringing in page views and building an audience. There are a lot of online travel media outlets that are only interested in page views and making money. The reason is simple. Growing in numbers is faster and less time-consuming. Growing a loyal readership (that may or may not convert in revenue) takes a long time. Most of the reputable travel bloggers with a loyal following have been doing this for almost a decade. Unfortunately, blogging has become a business that needs to bring money NOW. Which leads me to the next piece of advice.

Not Every Trip Has To Be “Ultimate” or Driven By FOMO

Before I figured out the kind of blog Tripper would be, I too wrote my fair share of listicles on ultimate things to do here and there. It was what everyone was doing and they seemed to have great success with it! Even reputable online publications love a good catchy-titled listicle now and then.

Believe me, I know. A listicle is easy to write and easy to read, a number on the title always catches more attention than an editorial-sounding piece, and “ultimate” just seems like so simple. I’ve written listicles for others as a freelance web content writer. It’s how online content is supposed to be: “skimmable.”

However, “skimmable” content doesn’t have to be lazy nor induce readers into an anxiety attack. Nor do you have to pose as an expert on a destination where you’ve only been once for a week.

As a travel blogger you have to ask yourself at one point: are you an online content creator or are you just a tourist with an online platform and a social media following? The first behaves as a professional (even if they’re not doing it for a living) and is careful about every content they create. The second is just someone following the fad and adding to the noise and misinformation.

The Rock Church in Helsinki
Most people visiting the Rock Church in Helsinki were simply ticking an item off their lists.

Think Twice Before Recommending Bargaining

A few weeks before Christmas, on my way to an appointment, I engaged in conversation with the taxi driver. I’m usually not in the mood for small talk and I tend to avoid taxis, but Uber had canceled on me three times and the traffic was too chaotic to risk a bus. Killing time by talking to the taxi driver seemed like a good choice.

Lisbon was crowded with Spanish-speaking tourists, the trains were on strike, and I had just performed by millionth-time trip-and-fall in the city (the last of 2018). Strike and tourism sounded like a good topic (much more than my tendency to trip), so I led the conversation with “is there a new cruise ship in town?” The driver explained the Spanish had a series of national holidays that week and Lisbon was close to home and cheap to travel to. “Cheap for them! Not for us!”, he said.

He also told me he had noticed a trend in the last couple of years: the cheap traveler. Not a backpacker, not a budget traveler. The cheap traveler. The one that bargains for everything, including taxi fares (which, by the way, are standard fares). According to him, it wasn’t because they couldn’t afford it but because they didn’t want to pay “that” price.

To me, this comes hand in hand with the perception that a destination is “cheap” or “affordable”. When talking about budgeting for a trip, there are so many factors you need to consider like currency exchange, basic needs, food restrictions. It actually surprises me that this is happening in Lisbon and I believe people are misinformed.

Yes, in Lisbon we bargain at flea markets (I hardly have any success at this) but not at produce markets (you can search for someone selling the same thing cheaper), and most certainly not at retail shops and with taxi drivers.

As for everywhere else in the world, check your sources before publishing solid advice. And by sources, I don’t mean forums like TripAdvisor (where people take someone else’s personal experience as a rule). I mean local people who live there, local press, local businesses. Yes, writing about travel IS hard work!

The (Unnecessary) Recent Trend of the Instagrammable Locations

Maybe I’m too old for this shit (channeling my inner Danny Glover’s character on Lethal Weapon 3 here), but can we remove our heads from our asses for a couple of minutes and focus a little less on social media?

Yes, social media now has a huge role in inspiring us to travel more but it needs to go deeper than that. I’ve recently seen a surge in blog posts and online articles under the theme of “Instagrammable locations”. In fact, I know of some businesses in Lisbon created to be first and foremost Instagrammable.

Instagram is an extension of my blog, not my primary creative outlet (that’s why I don’t post as regularly as I probably should). There are times that I forget hashtags, although I always include a caption for context, and I’m a disaster with geotagging my location (sometimes is just something generic like Lisbon, Portugal). 

But, writing content about a destination based on the best Instagrammable spots is not only incredibly irresponsible, but it’s lazy, unimaginative, and contributes nothing to turning travel into a more sustainable activity.

More Than Authentic, Be Honest

Like storytelling, authenticity or being authentic has fallen into the tight grip of the marketing and communication departments. Every brand and service under the sun, market themselves as overflowing with authenticity with a powerful backstory behind each one of their products.

Authenticity and storytelling might sell well to Millennials, but us from the in-between generation of “xennials” we see right through you. Both authenticity and storytelling can be manipulated, even in online travel media outlets.

If your focus is not solely on page views, if you genuinely want to play a role in making tourism better for everyone, focus on being honest. Every piece of your content should be reliable, even the sponsored ones. I’m part of non-blogging communities where, inevitably, people ask me if all bloggers are fake and paid to write but don’t share the same strong feelings towards online travel journalists.

You see, for non-bloggers, a travel journalist is paid to do their job. They expect to see an ad here and there, maybe an open promotion to a spa or a hotel because they feel the journalist was under orders. Travel journalism, online or offline, was not so much about informing as it was about promotion. It still is.

But bloggers were supposed to be the alternative media, the trusted source of information that independent travelers turn to and trust. A loyal reader will be okay with affiliate links or sponsored posts as long as they fit your media outlet’s values. You only feel like a sell out if you are selling out.

Sometimes, beating the competition doesn’t mean doing exactly what they’re doing only 50 times bigger (like instead of a 10-items listicle you write a 100-items one). That’s content pollution.

Be the alternative and independent online travel media your readers expect you to be.

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