Is Instagram Killing the Environment?
Words by Janice Cantieri
Photographs by Rishabh Malik
Over the last 20 years, the number of global travelers has more than doubled, from 523,909,597 people in 1995 to more than 1.4 billion in 2018, according to the World Tourism Organization.
Economic development, increased affordability, and the internet have helped make travel more accessible. In particular, social media platforms like Instagram have inspired more people to travel and are increasingly influencing where people go. “Tourism is changing, and Instagram is in the center of this shift…people are searching and discovering new places through Instagram. It has become the guidebook for travelers,” according to Putri Silalahi, communications officer for Instagram’s Asia-Pacific region.
Instagram’s geotagging feature has driven rapid increases in visitors to camera-friendly natural wonders, leading to increased litter, trail erosion, and wildfires. The uptick has been significant enough that some parks in the US have asked visitors not to use the feature. But these forces can be more complex in developing and middle-income countries like Indonesia, where tourism can potentially reduce poverty but can also damage fragile ecosystems.
In 2019, the Indonesian government hopes to generate income by attracting 20 million visitors to the country. Social media is central to these efforts—in 2016 and 2017, the Ministry of Tourism invited dozens of social media influencers on a “Trip of Wonders” promoting areas around Indonesia. They were successful: Visitors increased from 6.2 million in 2008 to 15.8 million in 2018.
If tourism is sustainability-oriented and community-based with enforced regulations in place, it can be beneficial for local populations and conservation efforts. But massive property developments for tourists deplete natural resources, destroy ecosystems, and cause pollution—an important consideration in Indonesia, one of the world’s most biodiverse countries.
The original “Instagram Tour” was launched by the Bali Bible, an online guidebook and booking agency. Others followed suit. “The inspiration of the Instagram Tour was to show individuals the true beauty of Bali, from hidden waterfalls to iconic temples, lush rice fields, and the incredible ‘Bali Swing,’” says Bronte Thompson, social media manager for the Bali Bible.
Certainly, these locations were popular before tours of this kind existed. However, the exponential increase in visitors throughout Bali and the subsequent property development is straining the environment. While there are some sustainable operations, overdevelopment on Bali’s southern coast has destroyed important ecosystems. Resort development often involves land reclamation—creating new land where there used to be water—which causes significant erosion, changes water patterns, and damages reefs.
Land reclamation on Serangan Island caused seagrass and mangrove disappearance and widespread coral damage, according to a 2004 report by the Partnership in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia and Bali Project Management Office. In the process, coral was extracted for construction in Serangan, Nusa Penida, and Candidasa, popular tourist destinations in and around Bali. This type of destructive development is a common practice.
Tourism is also contributing to a growing water crisis: A 2018 report by the International Tourism Partnership listed Bali as the tourist destination at highest risk for water scarcity. Sixty-five percent of Bali’s water is diverted for tourism purposes, according to a 2015 report by Stroma Cole, senior lecturer of international tourism development at the University of the West of England.
“Tourism has brought significant riches to the south, but groundwater is limited and reaching its limit, so the question arises: What happens when it runs out?,” Cole says. The rapid conversion of farmland and rice terraces to resorts also hinders rainwater filtering back through the soil. As a result, “flooding and runoff are huge problems in Bali,” according to Cole. Unreliable rain patterns, increasing temperatures, and rising sea levels caused by climate change are expected to worsen the issue. Development in particular increases the island’s climate vulnerability by destroying important natural barriers like mangroves.
Other tourist activities, like dolphin-watching tours at Lovina Beach in northern Bali, have more directly impacted biodiversity. Nearly 200 boats take visitors out to see dolphins every morning before dawn. While dolphin watching has taken place here for decades and is an important means by which locals earn a living, the many boats going out nowadays may hamper the dolphins’ feeding behaviors or make them more restless, explains Putu Liza Mustika, an Indonesian researcher and professor of tourism at James Cook University in Australia. “When I interviewed the older boatmen, they say that they used to see more species,” Mustika says. “In the past, the diversity was higher of what you could see.”
The influx of tourists has expanded to neighboring islands, including the Gili Matra islands and Nusa Penida. People arrive on Nusa Penida in the morning to see the Instagram-famous Kelingking Beach or Angel’s Billabong, take photos, and return to Bali in the evening, says Sudanta, a taxi driver from the island. “It started getting really busy in 2018, when it was promoted on Instagram. People just want to take pictures and go,” he says.
Tourism development creates opportunities, but it can contribute to decreasing water quality, land and ecology changes, and increasing pollution, says Fery Kurniawan, professor of Aquatic Resources Management at IPB University. And an estimated 85 percent of high-end tourism facilities are owned by non-Balinese investors, who frequently displace locals. “Indonesia has many regulations governing tourism development, and prevention of its impacts, and how environmental rules must be obeyed,” he notes. “However, many of these regulations are violated by tourism actors because supervision and enforcement are still low.”
What may have an even more significant environmental impact is the carbon emissions tourists generate by flying to Indonesia and other parts of the world. A flight from New York to Bali generates about 1.5 to 2.2 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions—or over 4 metric tons if flying first class—according to the UN International Civil Aviation Organization’s flight footprint calculator. A typical American driver emits 4.6 metric tons over an entire year.
Airlines are testing out biofuels and other efficiency measures, but in the meantime, it’s important to think about how often we fly. Avoiding air travel is one of the most effective ways to reduce one’s personal carbon emissions, according to a 2017 report by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas. But the issue can be complicated in tourism-dependent areas.
“If a place is poor and tourism can revive the economy, then you can actually get money for environmental conservation and reforestation,” says Aseem Prakash, founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington. “Walling off these [tourism-dependent] countries from air travel is not a good idea.”
Instead of singling out air travel, Prakash and Nives Dolšak, incoming director of the University’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, recommend that people consider the environmental costs of all actions holistically. If there are no substitutes for flying, carbon offsets—while not a solution—can help mitigate some damage. Related industries should also take responsibility, Dolšak says.
“Our simple point is: All actions have consequences,” Prakash says. “As thoughtful people and model actors, we should think about the consequences of our actions and see if we can achieve the same goals with a smaller carbon footprint.”