It is a particularly warm and humid Goan afternoon. The humidity, however, is no deterrent for hordes of Instagram reel makers who descend on Parra Road. Some pose on their bikes, some by their bikes and a couple of them decide to sit in the middle of the road pouting while the sun beats down mercilessly. But why? Simply because this stretch of narrow road lined with coconut trees featured in the 2016 film Dear Zindagi starring Shahrukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in lead roles. Check Instagram and you’ll find #DearZindagiRoad or #ParraRoad reels by the dozens. 

Writer Bina Nayak, who lives near the now famous Parra Road, recalls how Parra Road became an Insta phenomenon, from the time when a couple of tourists would ask her for directions to the street. She has had moments of frustration when she wished for a coconut to fall and disrupt such shoots, she admits. “You will find a hundred other streets in Goa exactly like this one,” she says.

Parra Road became a headache for the locals who had to use the stretch daily so much so that a ‘Swacchata tax’ was proposed, albeit revoked later. The pandemic worsened the situation. While the country was in lockdown, Goa opened up its businesses a little sooner and the influencers began to make a beeline, Bina recalls. In fact, it was the influencer rush and the scenes at Parra that inspired Bina to write Goagr@m, which centres around a fashion influencer who comes to Goa to vlog and make Insta reels and ends with an empathetic take on the influencer ecosystem.

You can spot the invariable reel makers anywhere you travel, be it at Portobello Road, London, looking for the door that features in the 1999 rom-com ‘Notting Hill’ or the crepe display at Takeshita Dori in Tokyo’s Harajuku. Incidentally, both these spots feature heavily on Instagram.

How has the platform rewired the way we travel? Have we forgotten how to take in the beauty of a landscape, enjoy a stunning sunrise or engage with the sights and sounds of a place without brandishing a phone? We have, sighs Bina, who remembers that even before the whole social media sharing frenzy began, she would find that constantly shooting pictures or posing for them would take away from the moment. “Memory is magic,” she says. Because it adds layers to what we see, hear and feel at a place — something pictures cannot capture. Today, we seem to have outsourced our memories and nostalgia itself has disappeared, she rues, referring to how social media platforms dredge up “memories” every now and then.

Mumbai-based writer and co-founder of an ad agency Devaiah Bopanna recently posted on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter), “…Instagram has ruined travel for me. None of the places I visit look as good as they do on Instagram.” He went on to say how his experience at Chichen Itza in Mexico was a “letdown” and that he had travelled there with high expectations. He found the site “barren” and “filled with lizards”. Similarly, many places in Kashmir didn’t move him as expected, he adds. “Standing in such beautifully scenic and serene locations should have stirred something within me. I’m not blaming the places themselves; I’m sure I would have loved them if my perception hadn’t been clouded by Instagram filters.”

The post evinced a huge response on X, with many feeling the same way and chiming in with “So…get off Instagram”. Isn’t that the quandary, then? Devaiah says, “I can be critical of the platform and still be on it. There are flipsides to everything. People complain about big tech using personal data, but I haven’t met anyone who said, sorry, I don’t use Google Maps because Google will get my data.”

Shivya Nath is a well-known sustainable travel advocate and influencer with over a lakh followers on Instagram. She says, “I actively try to avoid “Instagrammable” places but I sometimes land up at one unknowingly.” She recalls an instance while hiking in the Andes in Ecuador when a local recommended visiting a remote hut with an ‘end of the world’ feel. At the spot, she was shocked to see swarms of people. And what was the fuss all about? They were all rushing about to take a photo on a swing that had become an Instagram phenomenon! “The hut itself had transformed into a tourist site with an entry fee. It was amusing to see people take turns to take a ride on the swing and click photos that made it appear as though they were all alone when the reality was very different. As I continued my hike, I spotted similar swings set up a few hundred metres away — but devoid of attention because Instagram hadn’t yet given them any,” Shivya writes from Taiwan.

Shivya, who is the author of the book, ‘The Shooting Star: A Girl, Her Backpack and the World’, goes on to say: “Ask any long-term traveller, and they’ll tell you stories of miserable bus rides, bad food days, the nostalgia of a place that has changed for the worse, accommodation nightmares, stressful bank balance days…but these little travel truths often get lost behind the facade of glamorous travel photos, and make the life of a perpetual traveller seem a little too perfect.”

Is the medium the message?

Perhaps it’s the medium that’s the message when it comes to Insta. “Instagram as a platform is a low-barrier entry; you just have to upload pictures or videos to be part of the platform. and people who are consuming it are scrolling mindlessly. The platform aims to display the highlights of your life and show your peer group that you are having a good time. On the other hand, with X, it’s a text-based platform and is about sharing ideas and requires a certain amount of reading,” says Devaiah. 

Kathmandu-based copy editor and content writer Sarita recently returned from a trip to Japan. She and a friend who travelled together gleaned their travel recommendations from Reddit and from other friends who had travelled to that country. “We did save a list of places from Instagram but that didn’t make it to the final cut,” she says, adding that posts of cafes or restaurants that looked great on Instagram had average reviews on Google. 

So, what was her real experience in Japan? Sarita found Kyoto underwhelming. She narrates how she gave the much-photographed Arashiyama bamboo grove a skip because the park opens in the early hours of dawn and within half an hour, crowds begin to come in. If you were to look at travellers’ experiences with the bamboo grove on user-generated review sites online, you’d realise that it isn’t the glammed-up grove one gets to see on Instagram! 

Another experience that wasn’t much of a deal for Sarita was the famed Shibuya scramble, which features in ‘Lost in Translation’. “I am someone who has seen the crowds in Mumbai. For most of us South Asians, this isn’t such an unfamiliar sight at all,” she remarks. Some of the spots in Japan that were not big on Instagram such as the Cup Noodles Museum in Osaka and the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, were more enjoyable for her. 

Talking of Japan, recent reports suggest that a large barrier will be set up to block views of the iconic Mount Fuji — a viewpoint that is popular because the peak appears to cap a convenience store, making for visual drama. Tourists, reports say, crowd the tiny area, block sidewalks and disturb the peace. Italy’s Venice is also in the news for charging a tax for day trippers to enter the city. Overtourism is a real problem, thanks to Instagram and other social media platforms. 

Says Shivya, “It often breaks my heart to see how Instagram has magnified some of the negative impacts of travel. Geotagging has allowed pristine natural spots to be destroyed by overcrowding and irresponsible behaviour. The heightened sense of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has increased over tourism in places around the world, leading to environmental degradation and erosion of the living culture.”

Sudeepta Sanyal, currently in London, and co-founder of an experiential travel company in Mumbai, curates customised travel itineraries for customers. Does she see customers asking her to curate a holiday based on what they have seen on Instagram? “We have often had travellers asking about a specific hike (that may be particularly long or tough) based on Insta pictures or a bed and breakfast that looks gorgeous but is really far from the city centre but we help them manage expectations and keep things real,” she explains. 

On the question of over-tourism, she says that they often tell customers to look at other options — for instance, if Venice is burdened with over-tourism, how about another city with beautiful canals?  Also, the company doesn’t collaborate with influencers on Instagram and prefers to keep things real. “For example, Colmar is a quaint town in France but is quite crowded in the summers. When our clients want to head to the Xmas markets, we tell them they would need to keep in mind that it’s very cold at the time,” Sudeepta says, adding, “We make sure to give them the real picture because our clients are our influencers.”

Fake it and don’t ever make it!

It’s really easy to fake your vacation pictures in the era of AI and editing apps. A US company, unapologetically called ‘Fake A Vacation’, made news when it launched a service that offered destination pictures for those who couldn’t go on a holiday but wanted to show they went on one!

In 2020, an American Instagram influencer Natalia Taylor managed to fake her vacation to Bali as part of an experiment to see if people would see through it all. She recreated her holiday at an Ikea store and her followers believed it. Reports from that time said that she posted fake vacation pictures to prove a point — to tell her followers not to believe everything posted on the Internet. There are plenty of YouTube videos where influencers show how they pulled off a fake vacation on Instagram. Fake vacations became a thing during the pandemic when lockdowns and social distancing stopped people from stepping out. 

The word ‘fakeation’ however has different connotations. It is when you turn on auto-respond on email and outgoing voicemail messages to say you are “out of office” and on vacation while you are actually catching up on pending work and don’t want to be disturbed!

Published 19 May 2024, 01:03 IST

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