You've got to love Instagram. Although, do you?
For travellers the social media platform can be an invaluable tool. You can meet people through Instagram. You can be inspired by Instagram. You can research destinations, you can find new places, you can discover great food, explore amazing locations and pick up priceless local tips all through that little app on your phone.
It's changed the game. I do a lot of my travel research over Instagram. Sometimes consciously, sometimes completely organically. I've been inspired to travel to places I'd never even heard of thanks to the people I follow on Instagram. I've been encouraged to try new food, to take chances on strange places, to just get out there and explore and discover and marvel.
And yet, who are these people inspiring us on Insta? And what effect are they really having?
Plenty of studies have shown that Instagram is the worst social media for mental health. Worse than Facebook. Worse than Twitter. Instagram makes you feel bad about yourself. It presents you a curated, highlights-package version of other people's lives and it makes you feel as if yours is incredibly inadequate.
So there's that. And then, there is the world of "influencers", this free-for-all of the powerful and the popular, the beautiful and the talented.
You know influencers, even if you don't think you do. Anyone you follow who has, say, more than 10,000 followers is an influencer. In travel, that means someone who is encouraging a wide audience to go to certain places and do certain things.
Instagram users trust influencers, which is a big part of their appeal. There's an organic feel to your social feed that makes you think you're talking to a friend, even if you're following some A-lister celebrity with a million followers who has no idea who you are. You take influencers at face value. There's no cynicism. No mistrust. These are just real people.
And then suddenly, someone you follow and trust pops up on holiday in Saudi Arabia. They're having a great time there. The country is open for business, they tell you. And it's so much better than what you've heard.
If you follow someone like Tara Whiteman (@taramilktea – 1.3 million followers), or Gab Scanu (@gabscanu – 363,000), you might have noticed that exact scenario on your feed recently. The Australian pair are two of multiple influencers who have recently been paid by the Saudi government to travel to the country, take photos and say nice things about it.
For all the flat earthers out there, we found the edge of the world! Turns out it’s in Saudi Arabia Feeling so lucky to be a part of this exciting event, as Saudi Arabia opens its doors to tourists for the first time. This beautiful country has so much to offer. I’m so grateful to be here and to see what’s to come. @visitsaudi #WelcomeToArabia #sponsored
In fairness to Tara Whiteman, she labels her posts "#sponsored", so you at least know someone else is paying. Gab Scanu does not. There's no obligation to own up to payments like this, either, which is why you would probably – or, even better, might not have – noticed particular brands and destinations lately appearing, for no discernible reason, in the feeds of popular accounts that you trust.
These are advertisements, that very same as billboards on the streets or pop-ups on your browser. It's just that on Instagram they're delivered by people you rely on in a voice you recognise.
Is Saudi Arabia a country that really deserves your tourist dollars? Are its people being treated humanely? What is life like for women in Saudi Arabia? What's happening to, say, Loujain al-Hathloul, one of multiple activists who remain in prison in Saudi Arabia right now for the crime of campaigning for women's rights?
You'll never find out from the paid Instagram accounts you follow. Just big smiles and beautiful scenery. Everything's great. Come check it out.
Traditional travel media is not exactly perfect in this respect. Writers like me accept free trips from the tourism boards of various countries around the world all the time. We write travel stories about those countries, and we often post photos and anecdotes to our social media accounts from the trips we take in them.
There are a few differences though. Writers for mainstream media organisations always declare any interest from a third party up front ("The writer travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand" etc). Those writers are also not being paid directly by the tourism authority – we make our living from selling stories, whereas influencers tend to be paid in a direct sponsorship arrangement – and so have a greater degree of freedom to write what we see and what we feel.
This isn't to say that the influencers are always wrong, or that their industry is inherently bad. It's just a warning.
The people you follow on Instagram aren't your friends. They're businesspeople making a living from advertising. Sometimes they'll give you sound advice, and sometimes they'll lead you astray. It's worth remembering though that if everything they photograph and write seems too good to be true – it probably is.