Nearly one in three travelers turn to social media for holiday inspiration, according to a new study.
The figures are even higher for younger travelers. Some 60% of Gen Zs and 40% of millennials use social media for travel purposes, according to an April 2022 report by the travel company Arrivia.
On TikTok alone, the hashtag “travel” boasts 74.4 billion views, while some 624 million Instagram posts are about travel too.
But there’s a darker side to social media’s flawless travel photos. Expectations may not match reality, with many photographs edited to look better than they actually are.
Disappointed travelers are now striking back, using the very mediums that led them astray. They are publishing their own videos that show what immaculate places on social media actually look like in real life.
A town from a Disney movie?
A TikTok video inspired 26-year-old Olivia Garcia, a graphic designer and YouTuber from South Florida, to take a one-hour detour from her road trip, she said.
Showing snowcapped mountains and a town seemingly ripped from the script of a Disney movie, the video captured the supposed beauty of Gastonia, a small city in North Carolina. Garcia said she needed no more convincing to visit.
The only problem? The imagery in the video was actually Switzerland.
It was part of a tongue-in-cheek video series on TikTok in which a user labeled some of the most beautiful and recognizable spots in Europe as places in North Carolina. One video named the soaring Milan Cathedral as the “the new Bass Pro shops at Concord Hills Mall, near Charlotte.”
“We get into town, and it was just a normal town,” said Garcia. “There were no mountains. It wasn’t like the video.”
Garcia made a humorous TikTok video documenting her visit to the city, showing a dirty gas station and rundown buildings, though she noted she did focus on the “not so nice” areas of Gastonia.
“You always think like, okay, you see this happen to other people, but it never happens to you — I’m smart enough to know when things are real and when things aren’t real,” she said.
Since her video went viral, Garcia has spoken to the mayor of Gastonia, who offered to take her on a tour of the town if she returns. She also appeared on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” to share her experience.
“Do your research … because you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be,” Garcia said. “[And] don’t believe everything you see on the internet.”
A ‘beautiful, hidden garden pool’
Thirty-year-old travel blogger Lena Tuck also fell victim to a glamourized TikTok video.
While driving from Brisbane to Melbourne, Tuck said, she made an impromptu decision to visit a “beautiful, hidden garden pool” that she had seen on TikTok — the Yarrangobilly Caves thermal pool walk.
“It looked like this out of world place where topless men would be feeding you grapes or something like that,” she said.
But on the drive there, her phone lost reception — which meant she had no directions to guide her — and she had to drive on a rough, unpaved road for 10 minutes before trekking nearly half a mile down a steep hill.
When she reached the pool, she was surprised to find it packed with families and screaming children, much like a public swimming pool, she said.
“All I can think about is how many people have peed in here,” she said in a TikTok video describing the experience.
“It’s … the absolute antithesis of an Instagram experience, and I feel like that’s why the whole experience was just so funny,” she told CNBC.
She said she thinks people should be spontaneous and open-minded, but cautioned travelers to “do more research than I probably did.”
Photos of Terme di Saturnia, a group of springs in the Tuscany region of Italy, show beautiful blue water with steam gently rising from it.
But this couldn’t be further from reality, said 28-year-old Ana Mihaljevic.
Her visit was “highly” influenced by social media posts that show an “almost idyllic” scene, the self-employed project manager and digital marketer said.
But the water was green, smelled like rotten eggs because of sulfur, and was filled with visitors posing for photos, presumably for social media, Mihaljevic said.
“It’s most certainly not a place to relax,” she added.
Markus Romischer, a 29-year-old travel filmmaker agreed that the springs looked different on social media. He made a video, tagged “Insta vs. Reality: Europe Edition,” that showed his disappointment in the Tuscan springs, as well as spots in Switzerland, Madeira and Rome.
Once he saw it in real life, he said he could tell online pictures had been heavily photoshopped. The springs are “warm, the color was special, but when you only see those social media pictures” the reality is “a little bit sad,” he said.
Early mornings are far less crowded, said Romischer. When he arrived at 6:00 a.m., there were few people — mostly “grannies” — but the afternoon was a different story, he said.
“At midday, so [many] buses came from everywhere, and it was so full,” he said.
Tourist attractions will always be crowded, said Romischer, who shared one tip for avoiding crowds: “Don’t Google ‘what to do in Tuscany’ and go to the first place on the list.”
Like the others who were duped by social media images, Mihaljevic advises travelers to do their research.
“If you want to travel without research, that’s ok but be prepared that not everything will be as you saw it online,” she said. “Some places will be even better, but some will disappoint.”