Dear travellers. When was the last time you walked through an airport and stopped, put your phone down and took in the whizzing world around you? When was the last time you walked the full length of a beach without trying to perfect the best Instagram shot? And when did you last post a picture on social media that wasn’t tweaked to the point of being inauthentic after you insisted on collecting dozens of selfies, until you mastered the 'perfect' one?
If you find yourself answering I can’t remember, or 'never' to these questions, maybe we should consider travelling for the virtual world and start reclaiming our sense of adventure, so we can start living for the real one?
I write this open letter because I am guilty of failing to live and travel in the moment. As a travel writer, blogger, influencer, or however you identify yourself, there are pressures on you to tell the tale of a travel experience in a polished, perfected and edited fashion.
Do you remember when blogs were effectively online diaries of warts 'n' all journeys in airless buses across Thailand? Of tales of trekking across India with your passport and two pairs of pants? And of the random conversation you had with a stranger on a New York subway that led to you finding the best noodle bar in Chinatown?
Back then, we were happier to share the unedited versions of our travels and so we dared to be more adventurous. We were less preoccupied with collecting the best footage of a hike up Macchu Picchu. Instead, we enjoyed the company of the people we were with and took in the views with our own eyes.
A glossy travel magazine ran a controversial piece last year about 'How Instagram is ruining travel'. It recalled an experience where the writer was at the incredible natural wonder that we know as the Grand Canyon and talked about the extraordinary effort that Instagram influencers go into the creation of 'psychotically contrived, faux-spontaneous images'.
On the same note, a friend told me that they travelled to Cinque Terre in Italy recently after seeing some incredible images of these centuries-old houses on Instagram. The picture told the story of these enchanting remote villages devoid of tourists, perched on the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. The scene he saw through his eyes was quite different. When he got there, the streets were crammed with tourists and there was an overwhelming volume of tour groups descending on the place from cruise ships and buses. The feeling among the local people living here? They were being suffocated by the masses of people. The chances of getting a photograph free of crowds was virtually impossible. The question you have to ask is should we be a little more honest about the travel images we post?
I am totally guilty of many of the things above - and maybe even embellishing my photography a bit. As a travel writer and blogger, I take triple the number of photographs I really need to produce my articles, often take the same photo on my camera and iPhone so I can upload to various social media platforms and shamefully, I’m often told by my travel companion (i.e. my partner) to put my camera/iPhone/GoPro down to live in the moment. But I often feel that if I didn’t share something on the internet, it didn’t happen at all.
But I’ve also had times where the best travel memories come from those that I haven’t documented. They’re the stories I tell my closest family and friends that never make it onto my social media feeds and never appear on the pages of magazines. These are the tales of things that went wrong. The tales of when you weren’t preened to perfection but you’d hiked to the top of that mountain and you felt on top of the world. These are the tales of when you fell out of a rickshaw in Bangkok and grazed your knee but laughed yourself silly all the way home. They’re also the pictures of when you stayed in the grimmest hostel but you met the coolest group of people who you buddied up with and went island hopping in Croatia.
The problem is, I like following influencers too and I love being inspired by your amazing travel photography. I also realise that you - 'we' - are sometimes just doing our jobs. Especially if you are collaborating with a brand or travel company who wants you to show the best side of that destination you’re visiting. I just wonder how much pressure it puts on others to also look like they’re having an adventure rather than really experiencing the adventure in travel. Is that our responsibility to include a disclaimer about the fact it took us 100 takes to get that crowd-free 'faux-spontaneous' shot or should everyone know they need to take the virtual world with a pinch of salt?
Then we have the wonderful problem of mobile phone apps that have revolutionised the way we travel. I love researching cities via other blogs and being able to plot where I am going to eat, drink and stay via my Google maps. There are no wrong turns, I know what to expect from my extensive research and I have a carefully-honed itinerary before the plane has even touched the tarmac.
But do you remember when we used to just travel with a map and we would take the wrong turn? We embraced the adventure, the spontaneity and we lived in the moment? It was fun, wasn’t it? I know the rest of you feel this too and I love your pretty pictures and I don’t want you to give up on these. Nor do I want blogging to die out - because I love being able to read and share travel stories with people all around the world.
All I ask is that you start embracing the authenticity, the stuff that you didn’t plan, the stuff that went wrong. The adventure. You may be already - you may be the most adventurous ‘live-in-the-moment’ person who also happens to take damn good spontaneous images. I just wanted to remind you. Because that’s what makes travel so rewarding.
The next time I travel, I am going to make a promise to myself, to put the camera down, let myself truly wander and reclaim the adventure.
I may go into a state of anxiety that I’ve missed a photo opportunity. I may be filled with regret that I’ve not shared every moment with the virtual world. But I know I’ll feel happier, freer and more alive for pausing and being in the moment.
Will you join me and reclaim your sense of adventure too?