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The narcissist culture of travel

Karizma Ahmed, The Asian Footprints


Most of us are familiar with the story of Narcissus, who was the son of Greek river god Cephissus, and the nymph Liriope, who met his fate by obsessively looking at himself in the river. Now, one might wonder what Greek mythology has to do with travel. Unfortunately, a new trend of travel has emerged as 'selfie tourism', where travellers prioritise taking selfies and making painstaking efforts to find the perfect click to post on social media rather than actually enjoying the ambiance of the place that they're visiting. While capturing moments to remember might seem like a harmless activity, it has grave repercussions on individuals, communities, and children.

People are now prioritising travel like never before. They want to explore the world, especially after the pandemic, where being shut in the house for so long felt like a long claustrophobic never-ending episode. In such a scenario, coming up with potential destinations can be tricky and obviously involves commitment—from ideation to planning to materialising. Millennials nowadays rely on social media or 'influencers' for travel inspiration. The inadvertent dependency on social media is reflected in the choices made by people when selecting and visiting a place. As a result, 'check-list destinations' are adopted, which then begins the downward spiral of creating the perfect gridlock of pictures, reels, etc. The presence of digital spaces is feasting on real-life experiences, where what seems perfect is preferred over what is real.

For a generation swamped with cutthroat competition, it is imperative for millennials (or anyone, for that matter) to engage in meaningful travel experiences and actually enjoy the relaxing moments that have stolen from the monotony of life rather than working ceaselessly on finding the perfect click. Today’s generation, instead of stealing moments for themselves (with family or friends), ponders a new dilemma. They wonder if their chosen place is trendy enough to be seen travelling to. A nagging pressure of being embarrassed because of their chosen destination hangs over them like a live wire. All of this undue stress for the fear of being judged by a bunch of strangers online?

As a responsible global citizen, one must recognise the perils of 'selfie tourism' or 'ego tourism'.

1. Increased risk of accidents and injuries:

A large chunk of travellers is ‘dying to get the best holiday pics’, quite literally. In hot pursuit of the ''perfect selfie', tourists bring upon themselves unnecessary dangers and risks like standing too close to the edge of a cliff or getting too close to wild animals. Studies show that this is especially high among millennial men. What's worse? India tops the rank when it comes to selfie deaths, followed by Russia. In 2020, a newly married woman with three other family members drowned while trying to capture a selfie near Pambar Dam in Tamil Nadu. The selfie culture has become more important than life.

2. Disrespect for local culture and traditions:

In blissfully going around collecting ‘trophies of travel’, without a care in the world, travellers forget to prioritise learning about the local culture and customs. They inadvertently end up offending locals by engaging in disrespectful behaviour and violating native customs. This is leading to resentment towards tourists and perpetuates negative stereotypes. The popular cobbled backstreet in Paris called 'Rue Crémieux' with its pastel-painted two-storied buildings has been an internet sensation. The influx of influencers and tourists has exhausted the residents, their patience has run out. Frustrated residents of the picturesque Parisian street have petitioned to the government to outlaw all photo and video shoots on the weekends and in the evenings.

3. Damage to the environment and cultural heritage sites:

Popular destinations become overcrowded, leading to littering, pollution, and damage to natural habitats. The constant foot traffic can also cause damage to historic monuments and buildings. New Zealand's Mermaid Pools were closed indefinitely because the authorities were afraid of it being ‘killed by too many people’ after litter and human waste. The 15th-century wonder Machu Picchu in Peru that houses the Intihuatana was damaged due to increased footfall after a beer commercial shooting went beyond limits to visitors. The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO expressed ‘extreme concerns’ over Venice drowning by the impact of escalated tourism. "It is simply not sustainable to have never-ending growth in land-based tourism in this fragile environment," says the International Galàpagos Tour Operators. The 692% increase in hotels since 2006 on the Galàpagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean is dangerously alarming for its ecology. How many more cultural and heritage sites have to be made inaccessible before reality kicks in and we realise that the damage we inflict on these places is real?

4. Psychological harm:

The 'always switched on' traveller, made possible by the widespread use of smartphones, uses their gadgets to share their travel experiences in person and in real-time. The top two key ways that social media has changed tourism have been highlighted as discovering, looking for, and sharing travel experiences and information. Many people now use their cell phones as their 'external brains' while travelling. Yet, frequent cell phone use while travelling has occasionally caused travellers to anthropomorphise their gadgets, giving them human traits and viewing them as personal trip companions.

The days of travel destinations being in charge of their communication and image-making are long gone. Personal photography has evolved from its original purpose as a travel memory to become a significant source of travel inspiration and the most widely used platform for internet communication, self-expression, and identity construction.

5. Strain infrastructure and public services:

We flail our arms, scrunch our noses, and heave deep sighs when a destination becomes too crowded with tourists. The strain on public services such as transportation, waste management, and emergency services are seriously derailed causing disruptions in the daily life for locals and decreasing the quality of stay for both tourists and residents. Lombard Street or ‘world's crookedest street’ was built in San Francisco in 1922, it did not anticipate becoming one of the most over-trafficked streets in California. Approximately 6,000 tourists travel down the 600-foot-long serpentine turns every day. Officials even considered putting a USD 10 toll during the pre-Covid period to slow down the gridlock.

6. Decrease in quality of tourist experience:

With such never-ending queues, overpriced services, and overcrowded attractions, the tourist experience is bound to go down a spiral. From being fined four hundred euros for sitting on the Spanish Steps to being given just under a minute's time to view the Mona Lisa, there is barely any time for the tourists to actually engage with the beauty of what they are seeing.

The associated richness of history and social ethos gets lost in the phenomenon of hustle travel. One must not reduce a place to a name on a bucket list. They simply move from one place to another because they can, not because they actually want to. Leave the manic need to take a selfie to prove you have visited the place.

Mindful travel as an alternative

With so much to lose from those 'picture-perfect' destinations, it is only pragmatic to shift to more mindful, immersive, and sustainable plans for travelling. For a generation striving amidst climate change and uber-industrialisation, charting the world with responsible steps should be a matter of priority, not just principle.

Immersive and thoughtful travel refers to being fully present and engaged in the experience while travelling. It is 'to live' the moment with an intent of awareness, paying attention to the sensations around oneself. It is conducive to forging a genuine and deep connection with the places one visits. It doesn't involve rushing through a checklist of tourist attractions; it means 'slowing down', savouring the moment, and being open to gaining a newer, fresher perspective on life and the world around.

It offers special chances to encounter diverse cultures and lifestyles. Interacting with locals, sampling local cuisine, and taking part in their cultural activities can lessen social stereotypes and prejudices, increasing cross-cultural understanding in the process. This will also contribute towards the financial stability of local communities, and their long-term economic growth by encouraging people to stay in homestays and dine at locally owned restaurants. Travellers can improve their adaptability and ability to communicate effectively by going outside of their comfort zone and making an effort. It builds gratitude and self-awareness.

On top of that, mindful travel is also an environmentally conscious step. It offers people the chance to sit back and select destinations that can potentially lessen their carbon footprints and support sustainable tourism practices. It's a small but remarkably effective step towards a healthy planet and the preservation of natural resources.

Karizma Ahmed, The Asian Footprints

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