Is social media transforming the way we travel?

What's on your bucket list? From salsa sessions to home-stays, 'influencers' to digital nomads – Sudeshna Ghosh reports on the key trends of travelling in a hyper-connected world

Look up the hashtag ‘bucket list’ on Instagram and it will show up 4,209,778 posts - and counting. My feed alone is filled with people precariously posing on Grecian poolsides, eating street food in Cambodia, gorilla trekking in Rwanda…to the extent that pictures from my own long awaited bucket-list trip to see the Northern Lights seem to pale in comparison.

No longer is it enough to just go on homogenous fly-and-flop holidays, today’s travellers seem to be increasingly seeking out the authentic, off-the-radar, and culturally immersive, in place of formulaic.

As someone who has been writing about travel since well before we entered the social media era, I find a distinct growth in the number of people who see themselves as travel buffs, and also a shift in how people travel; things that may have previously been the exclusive preserve of intrepid travellers, have, in recent years, become a lot more mainstream.

The travel industry is eager to adapt to this demand. Tapping into the trend, this year’s Arabian Travel Market – the leading travel trade event in the region held annually at Dubai World Trade Centre – featured ‘experiential travel’ as its official theme.

This obsession with selfies and quest for ‘likes’ can mar the travel experience not just for the person concerned – if you’re busy sharing on social media, are you really experiencing it? – but people around them too

According to Simon Press, Senior Exhibitions Director of Arabian Travel Market, “Travellers are increasingly looking beyond conventional leisure itineraries and actively seeking out atypical experiences that deliver a true taste of local culture.”

This shift in travel behavior can, to a large extent, be credited to the digital revolution. The Internet is an inescapable part of the travel experience now, from researching destinations and making bookings online, to mapping journeys and translating languages in a foreign country, or sharing photos and memories on our social media pages.

Digital innovation has fuelled a growing interest in experiential travel, with endless streams of visually rich content now available at our fingertips sparking wanderlust by providing inspiration, and making more of the world feel accessible. The sheer volume of content also means that the modern traveller is more aware and informed – 70 per cent of travellers now read, on average, more than 20 reviews before booking a hotel.

Travel marketing consultant Frederic Gonzalo explains: “The biggest change stemming from online penetration and social media influence lies in how we get inspired to travel and how we plan, which affect the earlier stages of the travel decision-making process. We now have a wealth of information online, and we can validate destinations and service providers with a multitude of user-generated review sites.”

travels Cuba
The writer in the streets of Cuba

An overwhelming amount of research corroborates this. A study by Google and Ipsos MediaCT revealed that 87 per cent of all travel-related searches now originate online.

A survey conducted across 13 countries by Redshift Research revealed a whopping 44 per cent used travel bloggers as a source of information for decision-making, followed by 37 per cent who use online travel forums, 27 per cent who use Facebook, with YouTube, Vimeo, and Pinterest making up the rest of the percentile. 

Travel is also the most shared topic on Facebook, with Mark Zuckerberg himself nominating 2017 as the ‘Year of travel’, starting a group encouraging people to share their travel stories.

In fact, the social media revolution has spawned an entire generation of digital nomads who have made a career out of leaving it all behind to travel the world and blog about it; a seemingly alluring life choice that still comes with its own set of pros and cons.

70 per cent of travellers now read, on average, more than 20 reviews before booking a hotel

This is particularly pertinent than in this region, where social media penetration is among the highest in the world. Combine that with Dubai’s prime position as a global travel hub – with so much of the planet within a short- to medium-haul flying distance – and it’s the perfect storm.

People seem to be travelling more too. Overnight visitor flows are expected to grow at 5.4 per cent each year worldwide over the next decade, significantly higher than the world’s GDP growth of 3.4 per cent, according to a report by Oxford Economics. While online media may not be singularly responsible for this sociological trend, it does help fuel the hunger to travel more and further.

According to Press: “While traditional destinations are also benefiting from this trend, experiential and offbeat destinations are definitely seeing a growth, which social media has contributed to.”

Changing priorities impact all demographics, but the growing segment of millennial travellers is a key consideration here. Millennials have a different set of expectations, which, in the context of travel can be defined by a thirst for independent and genuine experiences.

This may seem at cross purposes with the millennial traveller’s need to stay perma-connected and propensity for hyper-sharing, but in an increasingly wireless world, it is possible to marry the two.

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A Sami reindeer herder

Nowhere is this more pointed than in Cuba – one of the last bastions of limited Wi-Fi connectivity, and also one of those places in which authentic experiences are easier to find – where I’d always find groups of young people huddled around the few hotspots that are available (I too, joined them on occasion), no doubt trying to either book their next home-stay or sharing pictures from last night’s salsa sessions with local dancers.

On the flip side, this obsession with selfies and quest for ‘likes’ can mar the travel experience not just for the person concerned – if you’re busy sharing on social media, are you really experiencing it? – but people around them too; I recall being seriously annoyed by the intrusive throngs of selfie stick sellers on a recent visit to the Vatican.

Though analysing the psychological impact of social media on a generation of digital natives is a whole other conversation, perhaps this global passion for a more connected travel experience might be a beacon of hope in an increasingly fragmented world.

Now, excuse me while I go off to do my bit for world peace – by uploading an image of the time I broke bread with an indigenous Sámi reindeer-herder in Sweden, of course!