Social media platforms such as Instagram and Youtube are giving us more insight than ever into the lives of the rich and famous. This phenomenon has ties with the rise of 'influencers', closer relationships between brands and celebrities, and aspirational content becoming a thing.
This trend, however shallow it may appear to be at first glance, is having a transformative impact on the travel industry. Young people, according to the British Foreign Office, are going further afield as a result of online influencers. Research suggests that one-third of UK 18 – 24-year-olds (33%) will be influenced by celebrities when preparing for their holiday this Easter, with nearly one in three (30%) saying stars inspire their travel destination.
There are a few problems that can arise when celebrity influencers are, well, influential. The most obvious is the realism they provide. On platforms such as Instagram, we already see the lives of others through a prism of sunshine and happiness. When it comes to celebrity influencers, that concept often moves to the next level.
Of course, not all celebrity and influencer accounts are the same. Some are better than others, some are only accidental travel influencers. Some focus specifically on providing a realistic view of a destination, while others are all swimming pools, hotdog legs and sunset selfies.
The issue with the latter is clear: people following in those footsteps could land at a destination uninformed, and with unrealistic expectations of local customs, infrastructure and culture. And that's where things can get awkward.
We've also seen high profile YouTubers - accidental influencers if you like - making poor decisions while travelling and generally making fools out of themselves. A case in point is American vlogger Logan Paul, who provoked headlines back in February 2018 when he took a trip to Japan and appeared to go out of his way to offend the locals.
The most controversial part of his Ladventure was a trip into Japan's infamous suicide forest, Aokigahara. Paul posted images of bodies hanging from trees, among other things that were both culturally insensitive and disrespectful, to say the least.
What we have to say here is that Logan Paul is by no means representative of travel influencers. That's partly because he isn't one. But he is no doubt influential with his millions of young viewers. And he does travel. So the parallel is inevitable.
The worry is that these big YouTube stars and other influencers might inspire the wrong kind of behaviour from young travellers. We're not sure how justified that worry is. But the British Government's certainly considers it so, particularly after successive news stories in which UK citizens are getting into trouble abroad.
The British Government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is "warning young Brits following in the footsteps of globe-trotting celebs not to fall foul of lesser-known local laws and customs, which could land them in serious trouble."
According to the FCO, young Brits are heading further afield as a result of celebrities and online influencers, to "destinations that have more unusual and surprising rules than UK travellers are used to."
On the face of it, that's quite a patronising statement to young Brits already. However, the statement continues...
"As most young Brits don’t have A-listers’ concierge support when planning trips abroad, the FCO is urging British people to be aware of local laws and customs in the destinations they are travelling to by reading up on Travel Advice – something that fewer than two fifths of young people (38%) currently do – if they want to avoid getting into trouble abroad.
FCO analysis of ONS data has found a significant increase in Brits travelling further afield than the traditional European trips, often to popular celebrity destinations that have stricter laws and customs than the UK. Visits to Sri Lanka are up more than a fifth (22%) and the UAE up more than a sixth (17%)."
In an effort to appeal to the young demographic which has probably never visited its website, the FCO appears to have roped in Jack White, celeb content director at Now magazine.
He said, taking the patronising tone of the announcement one step further, "We’ve all felt the pang of envy that comes from scrolling through a celebrity’s luxury holiday snaps on social media, but if you’re ever lucky enough to end up in Dubai or St Lucia it’s worth remembering different countries have different rules – and sometimes even the stars seem unaware of this."
"It’s easy to get caught up the moment on holiday, so it’s worth researching the local laws beforehand to make sure your dream trip doesn’t end in disaster. After all, there’s definitely nothing glamorous about ending up behind bars!"
Now, it's easy to sit here and criticise the British Government's clumsy attempt to offer young people travel advice. We've done enough of that. The truth is that this guidance has been issued for a reason: politicians are worried that travellers are not as informed as they need to be and are getting into problems as a result.
Let's look at some of the local laws and customs covered in the FCO's most recent travel advice:
Julia Longbottom, FCO Consular Director said:
It’s great to see the British people being inspired to travel to new and exciting places. This makes it all the more important to follow our Travel Advice and respect local laws and customs to avoid unnecessary trouble. For instance, e-cigarettes are banned in Thailand and can result in a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Even in places closer to home, disrespecting local laws can have serious consequences – in Greece indecent behaviour, such as mooning, can be punishable with a fine or even a prison sentence. We see many cases each year of people breaking local laws and customs.
It is important that our travellers understand that the UK Government can’t give legal advice or get them out of prison. Instead, we want to do all we can to help British people stay safe when they are travelling, and avoid ending up in these difficult situations.
There's no doubt that people, particularly younger travellers, are increasingly making booking decisions based on celebrity influencers. This isn't inherently a bad thing: it gives people the opportunity to explore destinations they might otherwise have overlooked.
But decisions based on the filtered world of social media could also lead to travellers being more uninformed than they should be. In the vast majority of cases, this won't make a difference. Tourism is a booming industry for many countries around the world, and local guides and agencies provide information as well as excursions once customers arrive. It's their job to keep travellers safe and happy.
However, there does seem to have been a rise in cases, as pointed out by the British Government, of travellers falling foul of the law purely out of ignorance.
This isn't ideal, but it's a natural result of the way that travel bookings are changing. We no longer walk into a travel agency and discuss our trip with an advisor. Young travellers are also perhaps more impulsive, spontaneous, plan as they go and don't do as much practical research before jetting off.
Less than two fifths of young people (38%) currently check the UK Foreign Office's travel advice before leaving the country, although that probably says more about the Foreign Office and its output than it does about the state of young travellers. At this point it's important to recognise that the information will never be found if the medium hasn't kept up with the times.
So how can we fill that information vacuum and keep travellers above the law and informed about new destinations?
On the one hand, travel companies have to do more. With the help of AI, automated suggestions, tips and guides can be provided during the booking process. Travel operators could also do more in real-time, as we've seen with the advent of instant messaging-based customer service.
No doubt there are gaps in every travel sector for an agency that provides practical information in as much abundance as it does deals and inspiration.
Here at Travelshift, this is a trend that we have recognised. In fact, you could say that our marketplace technology is perfectly placed to fill that information vacuum. How did we manage it? Well, we harness the power of a community.
Our marketplace solution has built-in blogging a community features that enable everyone - local travel operators, tourists and locals - to share tips and important information.
It means that as well as producing an enormous amount of content and massive traffic, travellers booking trips through a Travelshift marketplace are informed, educated and inspired in equal measure.