24 DEC 2019: “If it didn’t happen on Instagram, did it really happen?” may be a tongue-in-cheek joke du jour, but the prevalence of social media paired with the quest for authentic experiences by travellers as little more than sharing content has changed the nature of travel, if not in the way the one might think.

“It’s become about bragging rights,” Jamaica’s tourism minister Edmund Bartlett recently both observed and lamented about travel’s own me-too movement, which plays out daily and hourly (minute-ly?) across the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

VisitBritain exec Gavin Landry agrees: “It does seem to have changed from being the photo of the destination and caring about the place to a photo of me in the place,” he says. “And that’s a new phenomenon. It would’ve been a family before maybe, but it was never just, ‘Look at me, I’m on the Great Wall of China.’”

Chicken or egg, the tourism industry is certainly complicit in the trend, touting experiential tours, authentic moments, selfie-worthy sites and mystifying stats, such as “74 percent of people who travel eat in restaurants.” A hotel in Taiwan recently introduced its own “photo butlers” to accompany guests to sites around Taipei to take their pictures in order to facilitate them posting the moments online.

But hasn’t the eagerness for experience – new places and faces – always been the driving force of travel, from Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta to today’s first space travellers, and billions of people in between?

To be fair, in many cases the so-called authentic travel experience has evolved.

For example, 25 years ago, a Nile cruise shore excursion took me to visit a “real” Nubian family in their home. The awkward encounter consisted of sitting in a dismal room in their home while they filled the time by (thankfully) leaving the house altogether to find me a Coke. Our remaining time was spent by me paying for it. In comparison, approximately 25 days ago I toured a real Rastafarian community in Jamaica, an experience that was considerably more interactive, informative and interesting, but in the end, the subtle opportunities to purchase homemade soap, jewellery and pottery (but not pot) left little doubt that the authentic experience may have been devised with an ulterior motive.

Over the years, I have forced down kava in Fiji (it tasted like muddy river water), eaten ants in Australia, grubs in Peru, taught to do the Louisiana Two-Step by old ladies in Louisiana, been slathered in mud and paraded until the sun came up at Trinidad Carnival, waterskied behind a fishing boat in PEI and roasted marshmallows with the fisherman afterwards, plus countless other experiences that happened because that’s what happens when one travels.

“This is one of my pet peeves,” reflects Landry. “It seems like folks today, and I won’t categorize anyone by their age, think they invented the idea of going out and meeting the locals and having these deeper, rich experiences. My grandparents used to go and do that kind of stuff. The difference is we couldn’t go and share it on social media. We had a slide projector and it was the dreaded slide show that you made everybody watch when you got back from your trip. Now it’s just a new form of immediacy that you can share, but it’s not really that new of a concept.”

Landry’s VisitBritain colleague Sheelagh Wylie recently got a hard copy reminder of her lifetime of travel experiences. “When my grandparents passed away, I was given back all the postcards I had sent to them when I travelled,” she says. “I have the postcards they sent to me, so I know what the weather was like all over the world. Postcards were the proof that you were there, and you only sent them to your close friends and family.”

Indeed, in my more formative years, my pal Perry and I engaged in a decade-long tacky/oddball postcard contest that included such memorable entries as a card that could be played on a record player (him), several years of nothing but photos of Pope John Paul II (me), a vintage (which is to say used) card with a well-spaced “weather is fine, wish you were here” note in which new words were filled in to humorously change the message (him), and a plain white one in which the “image” was braille (me). A suitably tacky golden postcard award was exchanged when we agreed that one of us had outdone the other. I still have it!

Well, perhaps on second thought, maybe we were bragging!

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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