A remote open valley with snow-capped mountains merging with the horizon.
A river, now blue, now grey, meandering past lush green banks.
A beautiful forest full of the sounds of nature.
These are the scenes of perfect escapades featured in promotional videos by tour operators. However, all these videos increasingly have one thing in common: people dancing… on mountain-tops, by the river, next to locals in a village, and even with chitals as a backdrop.
What are we trying to communicate here? Are these dancing stories relevant to the destinations, the people and the prevalent culture? What happens when travel is commodified to just a few seconds of entertainment? With revenge travel still at its peak, destination marketing organisations (DMOs) are investing heavily in promotions and primarily in audio-visual content. Most of these videos have people dancing at different destinations. I have nothing against dancing. I enjoy it, too, but I have been wondering why the motivation to travel now seems almost programmed to one act—to dance anywhere and everywhere.
A March 2022 study, titled, The TikTok effect on destination development: Famous overnight, now what?, published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, reveals how TikTok videos of two destinations in Hainan, China, led to overtourism and “exceptionally negative consequences in many areas”. The researchers studied the effect of a sudden spike in tourist numbers after videos of two destinations went viral on the platform—Jianfengling Main Peak in Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park and the nearby E'xian Ridge and Daguang Dam Reservoir. “While the tourists helped improve the economic situation, they also brought traffic congestion, crowding, and pollution, putting pressure on the existing infrastructure,” observe the researchers. “There is still a need to explore the impromptu influence of TikTok on a destination's popularity, since tourist destination providers’ lack of understanding, knowledge, and readiness to receive a sudden influx of visitors may create issues such as how to provide sufficient infrastructure for these high numbers of tourists,” they write.
A lack of destination management coupled with irresponsible behavior by tourists has fueled animosity from the locals in many parts of the world. In Nepal, tired of tourists dancing and shooting videos everywhere, residents have put up ‘no TikTok’ signs. The phenomenon of 'tourismophobia', or locals’ aversion to and rejection of tourists, is growing with protests against insensitive tourists mounting in Spain, Italy, Greece and other European countries. In Tokyo, the locals have a word for it, kanko kogai or tourism pollution.
DMOs and videos portraying people dancing paint a false picture and subtly nudge one to be carefree at the cost of a destination, and its people, masking the true nature of its culture, citizens and crisis. As the impact of climate change touches every corner of the world, locals face challenges from depleting natural resources. Wildlife and environment face a crisis from overtourism. After the recent floods that left thousands homeless in Assam and the landslides in Himachal Pradesh, several videos promoted by tourism companies still turned a blind eye to the crisis on the ground. One video showed a woman sipping tea at a table by a river in Himachal Pradesh and a boat full of promises of exciting experiences. That the boat was on a ferocious, brown, monsoon-fed river, carrying debris post flooding, seemed to be ignored by the promoters. Mindful travel is a way to understand these problems while also learning about new cultures and ideas.
In the early 1980s, when tourism ads were still dependent on posters and hand painted or illustrated images, messages were pretty straightforward. During those times, travel marketing meant good content: An ad for France, said, “In Normandy, they make a lace so fragile, they say it has to be protected against moonlight.”
Travel ads attempted to reinstate a need to connect with the local culture and do what one does when travelling – learn and unlearn. Like an old ad for Greece, with a hand-drawn image showing two men painting a local scene of fishermen going about their work, with three words: refresh your perspective.
Today, ads splashed on hoardings have stunning landscapes blurred in the background with a giant image of an individual taking a selfie. Travel has no place in one’s resume nor is it an exercise in image-building, yet it has been reduced to stock images full of hedonism and self-glorification.
There is no denying the influence of audio-visual content on people's attitudes and in building impressions of a destination, social norms, and local interests. The role of destination marketers here is critical – being responsible for the landscape and the people they promote. More importantly, they can shape opinion and guide clients to be thoughtful travellers, inspiring them to take care of the places they visit and respect its people. Travel, as an experience, is meant to be transformational, a means to explore both outside and within, and a journey in exploration and joyful unlearning.
Gana Kedlaya is a freelance science and travel writer based in Bengaluru
Also read: How slow travel helps fight fake news