Instagram Algorithm Raises Questions Over Travel Authenticity

If there’s one thing that all travellers want to do, it’s fit in. Nobody wants to be the tourist, to feel like an outsider in a new place. Instead, the desire is to blend in with those surroundings, to be one of the locals. Part of being a local is doing as the locals do, skipping the tourist traps and finding the hidden gems that only people who know the city well will have discovered.

If this need for a genuine experience is one of the permanent threads running through the narrative of the modern travel industry, others include the need to remember, record and share our experiences. We all want to have memories to look back on, even if it’s a postcard, a few old photographs or a 10-second video. And we all seem to want to publicize these trip highlights and share them with friends and family.

So blending in with the locals and sharing memories are two things that modern tourists seek. It’s about time that someone ties these two desires together, right?

New Tech Detects Attractions By Tracking Locals’ Instagram Activity

Programmers from ITMO University, Russia, have come up with an ingenious, indirect way for locals to give advice to tourists. The research team has developed an algorithm that scans local Instagram accounts to come up with a list of the most popular museums, cafes, streets and parks. By using data from locals, tourists can be sure they are getting as authentic an experience as possible.

Results of the research were presented at The International Conference on Computational Science and published in the peer-reviewed journal Procedia Computer Science.

Clearly, this is an interesting combination of social media, artificial intelligence and travel software. It merges the popular platform used to store and share memories, Instagram, with the desire many tourists have to get off the beaten track.

Let’s go back to the craving many of us have to capture and share our favourite holiday moments. Social networks like Instagram are becoming increasingly popular for that exact reason. The platform currently has over 700 million monthly active users around the world. 14.4 million of those are in Russia, where this study was conducted. There are two examples of why people would post an update about a specific place: because it’s their first time there or because they visit often.

You might be thinking that the algorithm might have an obvious flaw: tracking both locals’ and tourists’ Instagram activity instead of just locals. But the team at ITMO (Or more specifically from the Uni’s eScience Research Institute) found a way to distinguish between Instagram users living in St. Petersburg and visiting tourists based on how they use social media. By doing this, they were able to provide off-the-beaten-track locations that were most loved by St. Petersburg locals.

Of course, popular locations for locals and for tourists differ, but it was important for us to know just how they differ. Guides usually offer tourists a list of 10-15 attractions. However, locals usually know more. By identifying their favorite places, we can significantly diversify such guide books” – Alexander Visheratin, engineer and Head of Research at eScience Institute at ITMO University.

An important thing to factor into any tourism guide is that sites, scenes and destinations change over time. What’s popular today may not be popular tomorrow. As such, a service that works in real time and offers tourists an insight into recent trends could be invaluable.

“Instagram is a dynamically changing environment. Some places gain popularity while others lose it. Sometimes new restaurants or cafés open. Therefore, the creation of a recommendation service which follows photographs of interesting places in real time is a logical continuation of the current results. This is what we are currently working on”. – Ksenia Mukhina, lead author of the study.

ITMO University instagram travel technology

Visualisation of Saint Petersburg residents’ favourite places, according to analysis of public and geotagged Instagram posts, versus those of tourists. Photograph: Ksenia Mukhina et al/ITMO University

Is Authenticity Permanent?

Travellers’ quest for authenticity brings about an interesting philosophical question. At what point does a sight or destination lose its authenticity? The whole notion of ‘off the beaten track’ is that it’s a tourist-free zone, a place where locals get together and do locals things. Do technologies such as the one developed in St Petersburg threaten to undermine the authenticity it helps tourists to discover?

The answer is not straightforward. Take a quiet church or a secluded park. Part of the magic of these little-known destinations is their secrecy and their atmosphere. A horde of tourists would quickly see both of those things dissipate.

And this kind of phenomena could happen on a much bigger scale. We’ve recently written about issues with over-tourism in cities such as Barcelona and countries like Iceland. Although there are many factors at work in both examples, part of the issue is that locals feel like they are being crowded out, like their usual places are being overrun with tourists.

It’s a fact that authenticity can be damaged, if not lost completely, by too much tourism. A key for technologies such as that developed in Russia is to find the right balance: to give travellers the local experience they seek without putting locals off themselves. Arguably this is just a case of simple numbers. But it’s also about education. These technologies don’t only have to locate secluded spots. Maybe they can also advise on how to behave like a local. Maybe don’t take selfies in that peaceful church? Or don’t play music out loud in that pretty park only the locals know about?

After all, blending in is as much about how you behave as the language you speak.

The Power of Community-Driven Content

We’re big fans of community-driven content here at Travelshift. But the technology described above is slightly different to what we usually specialise in. Our marketplace platform gives sellers the ability to invite locals with expert knowledge to blog and contribute to a thriving community of influencers.  As well as boosting SEO with bundles of unique, informative content, travellers can learn from authentic stories, hints and tips.

The notion of passively filtering Instagram data is not one we have considered before. But this study shows how it can be done to effectively make every Instagram user a participant in one enormous content community. By tracking hubs of activity in real time, tourists will never be far behind the latest trends and popular locations.

The Trump Effect is Real: US Travel Industry Slump in Numbers

When Donald Trump became president of the United States back in January 2017, plenty in the travel industry were making predictions about how the radical shift in American politics would impact upon tourism to the country. This was due to a number of factors. Not least the new president’s xenophobic rhetoric and his intention to adopt policies restricting the rights of people depending on their country of origin and religion.

This, as we’ve pointed out in previous posts, is an example of just how incongruous Trump is with the modern travel industry. It was always going to be fascinating to observe how an industry based on openness, tolerance and community would respond to the new America.

And now we have some data to work with. It appears as though there’s been a significant Trump slump. Since the reality TV star came into office, international tourism to the States has dropped. Here are the details…

The Trump Slump?

Despite some positive noises coming out of the U.S. Travel Association in recent months concerning the expected number of tourists into the States from abroad, they have now put forward a “substantially more pessimistic assessment” of travel into the US. They’ve gone so far as to put out a warning of “major storm clouds for the inbound international travel market.”

According to the latest Travel Trends Index, a revised analysis of recent inbound travel suggests that “international visitation—initially found to have grown consistently this year—actually declined in four of the seven months for which data is so far available.”

The contractions were most apparent in February (-6.8 percent) and March (-8.2 percent). Travel economists have suggested that even the slight uptick in April is likely down to the Easter holiday falling in that month this year.


For the TTI, as in many similar indices, a score above 50 indicates growth while a score under 50 indicates a decline.


U.S. Travel Association Senior Vice President for Research David Huether said the results were in line with what the organisation expected.

Read more: Trump Travel Ban Hits USA Tourism Industry Hard

“We kept projecting drops in international visitation, and they kept not materializing,” Huether said. “However, we recently were able to access new data inputs for the TTI to give us an even more comprehensive picture, and sure enough, the international travel segment has been far weaker than what was initially shown.”

In case you’re wondering how accurate the data is, the TTI is prepared for US. Travel by the research firm Oxford Economics. ‘U.S. Travel and Oxford routinely seek to identify available data sources that add to the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the index. The data sets added to the latest TTI calculations came from IATA, OAG and other tabulations of international inbound travel to the U.S., and resulted in the downward revision of TTI results from earlier in the year.’

Currently, travel and tourism are responsible for one in nine American jobs. Inbound international travel is actually the No. 2 overall U.S. export. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the head of US Travel believes the American economy can’t afford this troubling downward trend to continue.

“The international travel market is ultra-competitive, and the U.S. is falling behind,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. “Fortunately, there are levers the Trump administration can pull to help right the ship—continue the Brand USA tourism marketing organization, and protect policies that enable international travel to the U.S., such as Open Skies aviation agreements and the Visa Waiver Program.

“Inbound travel to the U.S. already went through one ‘lost decade’ after 9/11,” Dow said. “It took a sustained national policy effort to return to the pre-9/11 level of travel exports, which only happened last year. If we don’t want to give back all of that progress, the time to act is now.”

In the statement from the U.S. Travel Association there is no mention of the reason for the declines in international visitors.

Interestingly, domestic markets for business and leisure travel are performing well and seeing growth from last year.

Read moreHow Will President Trump Affect The Travel Industry?

“Upbeat consumer attitudes and solid labor market conditions continue to support the domestic travel market,” said Adam Sacks, president of Oxford Economics’ Tourism Economics group.

“However, stagnant wages and the recalibration of expectations regarding the Trump administration’s campaign pledges pose risks to consumer and business sentiment. Additionally, the President’s continued rhetoric and policies weigh heavily on the international inbound market outlook.”

donald trump usa travel decline

It seems as though international travelers don’t identify well with Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric – much like plenty of his own citizens.

International Tourism into US in Decline: In Numbers

According to USA Today, it’s estimated that 700,000 fewer international tourists arrived in the U.S. during the January 2017- March 2017 period compared to same period last year.

As you might expect given Trump’s rhetoric and attempts to enforce a Muslim ban, the steepest drops were from the Middle East and Africa, regions that sent almost 25% fewer visitors than just twelve months before.

European arrivals were also down by around 10%, with 2.6 million visitors representing a 300,000 decline during the first three months of 2017. Again unsurprisingly, arrivals from Mexico were down 7% -nearly 300,000.

Overall, the 15.8 million international tourists during the first quarter were down 4%, or 697,791 visitors.

This decline has hit US business, too. That many lost tourists represent a $2.7 billion reduction in spending, according to an estimate by Tourism Economics of Wayne.

Read more: Why Tourism and Politics Go Hand in Hand

This is About Atmosphere, Not Just Legislation

It’s impossible to pinpoint how much the decline in international visitors to the USA is because of President Trump. But we can safely assume that his rhetoric and actions have played a part in the market contractions.

Some of the President’s attempted legislation, such as the Muslim ban, had a marked impact on business travel into the US, as we reported back in February. However, consistent decreases in international tourist numbers are likely to be the result of atmosphere, not failed legislation.

Trump led a divisive campaign that caused controversy among liberal Americans, minorities, and travelers the world over, including smears at Mexicans and disabled people. And his actions in office have done little to repair the damage. The USA is as divided as it has been for decades, and the resulting atmosphere is not one that international tourists are keen to engage with.

The sense of a nation in turmoil has similarities with scenes in the UK, where the Brexit vote has led to a change in tourist attitudes on the European continent. According to research published by Travelzoo, a third of travelers from Germany, Italy and Spain – and a quarter from France – confirmed that they would be less inclined to travel to the UK in the event of a Leave vote. Four in 10 respondents from EU countries also worry that Brexit could make UK holidays more expensive.

The latter has not quite turned out to be true, since the plummeting pound has actually caused a boost to the UK tourism market. However, the feelings of Europeans is clear: Brexit, just like Trump, suddenly made the UK seem like a destination that was unwelcoming and less appealing.