The New Rules of Travel
How to manage the influence of social media in a post-Covid travel world
Marisa and I recently returned from our Honeymoon, a lovely two week jaunt through Italy and Greece that led to some fantastic memories: eating outrageously good croissants while overlooking the Mediterranean in Oia, taking a cooking class hidden up a hill in Positano, late-night weaving through the brightly bleached streets of Naoussa in Paros, and walking through the misty courtyard of the Santa Maria Maddalena church on a rainy day in Atrani.
But the trip also had its share of head-scratchers. “This is is what everyone raves about? Are we the ones who are crazy?” You see this was our first trip where we encountered the Molotov cocktail of supercharged tourism in a post-Covid, social media-fueled world. We spoke to some local shopkeepers in Italy and they said business was up over 60% when compared to 2019. Business has been a-boomin.
There’s every reason to applaud the revival of tourism, especially to those places that lost so much of it during Covid. But as a tourist, it also means that places have changed, which means the rules of choosing where to go and why need to change as well.
Rule #1: If you see a location on Instagram, you’ll see Instagrammers on location.
Since American soldiers got a glimpse of the Amalfi Coast during World War II, it has been an established place to holiday, mixing Italians and foreigners alike. Positano in particular, with its quaint, 3 square miles of hillside buildings, has grown steadily in popularity.
Now it’s saturated. The internet made organizing trips there easy, flights made it accessible, and social media made it more desirable for millions of people to visit. In 2022, everyone and their 4th cousin seemed to stop by.
That explosion was palpable when we stayed there. As we walked around the streets of Positano, the crowd was around 75% Americans, 15% other nationalities, and 10% Italian. About 25% of those Americans seemed to be in line outside of the bar at Le Sirenuse, which led to another line to get to the one spot that everyone posts from on Instagram.
It’s simple geometry: all of the U.S. found out that taking pictures in Positano got you a lot of likes on Instagram. And those pictures showed all of the U.S. how picturesque it is. Then all of those people, millions more than in the past, descended on an area that remained only 3 square miles. It’s tough to find the charm when a leisurely stroll down a side street feels like the running of the bulls.
The same thing happened in Santorini, Greece. The town of Oia is an impossibly beautiful combination of whitewashed buildings built directly into the side of a cliff overlooking an endless ocean and volcanic islands (also, it has great croissants).
Oia, from the outside, is undoubtedly a treasure. Step inside, however, and the narrow streets are jammed with tourists hustling to get to the western-most tip of the town so they can take sunset photos. Cruise ships, floating cities of over 6,000 people each, dump their human cargo onto the island every day, immediately tripling the population of the town.
That town is only 7 square miles, half of which is covered by hotels. The smooth, white, cobblestone main street is only 20 feet wide, and half of it is taken up by people dressed up like they’re heading to a charity gala; they lean off ledges, judging the wind like expert meteorologists as they ensure their dresses blow perfectly to the side; their cadre of friends capture every angle in pursuit of the perfect pic. Just like in Positano, there are lines for the spots you most see on Instagram.
Rule #2: People are lying to you.
If you’re talking to people who have visited the Insta-popular place of the moment, there is a good chance they won’t be totally honest with you. We had spoken to so many people who raved about Positano and Oia, and yet when we got back and shared the thoughts above, a lot of them were quick to say “oh yeah we felt exactly the same way, we definitely wouldn’t go back.” What??
This feels like when I grew my hair out to my shoulders in Los Angeles and when I cut it back to normal everyone came out of the woodwork saying “this is so much better, you didn’t look good at all with the long hair.” Thanks, friends.
For popular movies, books, restaurants and vacation destinations, people love to love what’s trendy, even if they didn’t like it at all. It lets others know they’ve seen/read/eaten/traveled to a thing that’s desirable, and, barring the people who love to hate what others love, shows that they are a part of the scene.
Social media has heightened that sense of trendiness. Unfortunately, the “it” place is now more “it” than ever, simultaneously making it more popular than ever while ruining the very essence of it. Be wary, not covetous, of what is blowing up in TikTok.
Rule #3: It’s really hard to call a city too touristy.
I love cities. If all my vacations could be to cities I would be a happy man. They are beacons of that region’s culture and always have fun, unpredictable doses of outside influence. They also have the square mileage to offer multiple respites from the crowded city centers. In other words, it’s hard for social media to ruin a city.
Some people like to call Florence, Italy too touristy and not worth visiting. There are 400,000 people in Florence proper and over 1.5mm if you include the surrounding areas. Over 80% of them are Italian. If you go to the places you read about on American blogs (which I already wrote about), you’re going to run into all the Americans. It’s like saying you shouldn’t visit Manhattan because of Times Square. Are there places where there are a lot of tourists? Yes. But the law of large square miles means there’s plenty of local culture to find.
London, Lisbon, Milan, & Barcelona are incredible cities bursting with local people who live, work, and play there. Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, & New York are exactly the same. In any of those places, if you want to find the tourists, you absolutely can.
So where should we travel!
Destinations around the world have been tourist hotspots for decades. To say that you shouldn’t visit a place because it’s popular would be absurd. But the landscape has changed. Globally there are more people with the means to visit more places. Ironically, social media has the tendency to narrow the field of places that people want to go. So more people are left jammed into the same locations.
That means it’s probably best to avoid the places that all of the sudden everyone is talking about. Maybe don’t visit Positano right now and let it calm down a bit. Same for Venice, Italy. In a few years the spotlight will be on different places.
There’s also the hidden benefit of saving money. A place that is having its moment is going to be much more expensive than normal. I have it on good authority that hotel and Airbnb rates are increasing more than 50% next year on the Amalfi Coast. They didn’t see the 2022 boom coming. They won’t make the same mistake in 2023.
The world will also continue to expand as more places develop. There’s a very real chance our children will be Googling “best beaches in Africa” and Dakar, Senegal will be 2045’s version of Positano.
Popularity and reputation helps us choose places that we would enjoy. Other people have visited and confirmed it’s worth traveling there. With the emergence of social media influence, however, we just now have to be a little bit more careful about where and when we go.