Social media-fuelled tourism is on the rise and we can thank Generation Y for plugging us into the fear of missing out. If it wasn’t for Instagram and other online social media tools, chances are we wouldn’t know about these prized travel locations that are either off the grid or largely unexplored by the masses. But now, hashtags and social photographs are inspiring others to also pack their bags and seek more adventure.
When it comes to travel, many of us turn to our phones to begin the search. From there we seek destinations via hashtags and accumulate a shortlist others have shared along the way.
But more than just acting as interactive travel diaries, the rise of Instagram has given a new lease of life to social media influencers—where top-tier ones spend their year on the road visiting new destinations on a weekly and monthly basis. They’ve found a way to mix business with pleasure and the thought of settling down doesn’t appeal—just yet anyway.
When it comes to travel and aspirational living, nobody does it better than a social media influencer. This is not a passing phase— there’s careful plotting behind the scenes, deals made with airline companies, hotel chains and off-the-grid destinations in a bid to lure you to the next best place.
An AdWeek survey in the US recently revealed that almost half of holiday-makers had heard of their destination via Twitter or Instagram. Given that most of us turn to socials to find destinations, brands are linking themselves with travel influencers to leverage their impact.
Research undertaken by MDG Advertising into social media patterns shows that 40 percent of all online bookings are now done via a mobile device, that 74 percent of travellers use social media while holidaying and 40 percent of UK millennials admit that Instagram inspired their next destination of choice.
Enter the lucrative market of online storytelling—where all is not what it’s cracked up to be. Those with an abundance of followers work hard at curating content—this is not simply a case of turning up with a suitcase to a castello in Tuscany for mass product placement— these social media influencers map their journey based on what gives them the biggest buzz, what their audience is looking for and taking the road less travelled so they can indeed travel for longer.
Dr Tim Robards has more than 184,000 followers on Instagram—it’s a healthy slice of the pie for a guy who made his name as Australia’s first contestant on The Bachelor reality TV show. But more than finding true love [which he did when he married Anna Heinrich this year in Italy—via a destination he found while using Instagram], he has managed hold onto his momentum beyond a reality TV spot.
Now, he’s flexing his muscle in the online space preaching to his fans about travel, health and fitness. His process is about educating rather than flaunting, and while he combines a mixture of curated content with fitspo posts, he still wears his heart on his sleeve and continues to practice from his clinic in Sydney a few days a week.
“After being on The Bachelor I found a lot of people were keen to know what I was up to. So my decision to do something online stemmed from that, but has become so much more,” says Robards.
He uses his social media influence role to inspire and entertain by showing his followers beautiful places around the world and in Australia. But when you’re a TV personality in a social media space, the fine line of not overwhelming your followers with ‘the perfect life’ syndrome is inevitable.
“For me, being online is about doing things high on my values list,” says Robards. “It’s about family, spending time with loved ones, fitness and travel. If I can incorporate those into my posts I am doing what matters most to me. That is a true reflection of me. I am also mindful not to boast about my life—it’s not about making people feel like they’re missing out. It’s about inspiring those who never thought of seeking adventure, travel or health and fitness to do just that.”
Robards says social media and travel influencers should always reflect their values and not take their position for granted either.
“Social media is like a double-edged sword,” he says. “It can be quite negative and addictive for some people and you need to know how to control it, just like gambling and alcohol. Everything in life has an equal balance of good and bad, positive and negative. As a consumer you need to balance your life with other things and as a respected influencer in the online world, you need to respect your boundaries for time in the real world.”
Australian-based Kurt Dacheng Ji runs Blogger’s Boyfriend, which began as a fashion and destination site in 2013 and has now morphed into a full-time commitment to travel and destination-hunting.
Over the past five years, Ji remains committed to the cause, chasing destinations on a weekly basis and partnering with hotels and airlines to bridge the gap between dreams and real time.
His work has taken him to China, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and European countries like Italy and France. His aspirational and luxe storytelling combines surreal wonder with a healthy dose of realism.
“Many people in their 20s absolutely love to travel,” says Ji. “And many in this age bracket also know how to travel for free and how to use the digital platforms to make a fantastic living. You don’t need a degree to make a good living on Instagram, but you do need one skill and consistency to keep doing it until many people know you because of that skill.”
Ji researches his destinations via Instagram and favourite travel bloggers. From there he roadmaps a sponsored trip which carefully curates brands into his posts without feeling overwhelmed by it— from clothing to luggage, hotel rooms to products, there’s an art to doing it tastefully.
John McMahon, 24, is a travel and features writer at Boss Hunting. It’s the mix of extreme adventure and visiting places few would consider that gives him the biggest buzz. He recently returned from climbing a 4000m peak in Papua New Guinea—a trek that would have freaked out his mother but didn’t stop his determination to complete it.
He followed his father’s footsteps somewhat [he was a wine and travel writer] and also counts an experience to Tonga’s Matafonua region as a tropical highlight.
“As kids, we’d travel the world because of dad’s job,” says McMahon. “We got to enjoy cool things and it did have an influence on my desire to do this after university. But where dad stuck to word limits and page restrictions, I have more freedom. Some influencers go crazy with visuals and it works wonders for Instagram, but I manage to do a bit of both—content that’s easy to read if you’re scrolling on a phone with some great visuals.
People are now less inclined to read a magazine and seek most of their destination information online so it’s important to package it accordingly.”
But more than just riding the wave of freebies, McMahon says integrity and passion for content is what keeps his ambitions in check.
“For me it was really about finding a way to write about my travels, go on cool trips and see places I hadn’t seen. My travels are influenced by things someone else hasn’t done,” he says. “When I was asked on a nine-day survival hike in Tonga, in the middle of nowhere, I was very excited. I got to experience this very different type of travel. Some people like to cruise through Europe or take a yacht in Croatia, but to go on an adventure like this was a big buzz for me. It was also the most-read article I had written for Boss Hunting. It’s a sign people want adventure and if you can get a great Instagram snap then great, but in an over-saturated market of travel destination snaps, people want something new and where not many others are necessarily willing to go.”
“It’s about inspiring those who never thought of seeking adventure, travel or health and fitness to do just that.” – Dr Tim Robards
Shaun Birley, 30, is an e-commerce consultant and fashion and travel enthusiast. Born in South Africa he has always loved travel. From a young age, his family moved to the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and for the past three years he has lived in Brisbane, Australia.
He’s all about unravelling new experiences at the usual travel destinations, but it’s this niche approach that sets him apart from the rest.
“I try to expose unique experiences around normal travel destinations—the things you wouldn’t think were top of mind,” says Birley. “Naturally a lot of people are drawn to what they see online, and if you can show a side to a country or city that isn’t usually seen or experienced then you have the opportunity to create further demand for that particular business.”
Birley is an example of how travel influencers can turn their jackpot luck into helping others.
He recently helped at a school in an impoverished area in New Delhi, India and used his social media influence to do community work and raise the problems Third World countries face on a daily basis.
“The demand online for both the experience and the opportunity to do some charitable work was overwhelming,” says Birley.
He takes you to Indonesia for drastic landscapes, London for its narrow city streets and Milan Fashion Week for some sartorial chaos.
“The reasons I choose some destinations comes down to personal choice,” he says. “From there we usually sit down and construct a mini campaign and storyline around that trip and then pitch it to brands and hotels. Just recently, we wanted to focus on the new hotels and restaurants around Bali’s various thriving beach areas. We built a travel show-style video backed by photo content to expose what is new on offer with the support of the hotels, bars and restaurants,” he says.
Birley, who has taken more than 75 flights in the past year, says his generation is now the worst savers in history due to their appetite for travel.
“We would rather spend our money on travel and experiences in the short-term rather than long-term financial investments or gains,” he says. “Social media has definitely fuelled this addiction for both good and bad reasons. It’s getting people out and about seeing new places because their close network of peers are, but it also has those travelling for the sake of ‘doing it for the ’gram’. My concern lies in the latter, where people are making irresponsible financial decisions to portray a certain lifestyle of travel and decadency.”
“The demand online for both the experience and the opportunity to do some charitable work was overwhelming.” – Shaun Birley
Jiawa Lu lives in Sydney and Paris working as a digital consultant and content producer. Via her blog Beige Renegade, she’s found a way to dabble in photography and writing since 2012 and has travelled to some amazing destinations too including Turkey, Morocco, Sicily and Jordan.
Via compelling visual content, she’s found a way to focus on fashion and travel and takes cues from her followers keen to know more about the places she visits.
“During my recent trip to Jordan, my IG Stories views spiked to five times the usual numbers. I received many messages asking for travel advice, so I can see that people were really inspired to travel,” she says. “However, a large proportion of the messages I received were simply people wanting to react to the content, even if they weren’t planning to travel themselves. I guess what makes social media so engaging is that not only do you get to see entertaining content, but you also invest emotionally in the people you’re watching, even have meaningful interaction with them. For me, it’s amazing to have a channel to share the extraordinary stories I experience.”
She prefers offbeat destinations that people might not think of travelling to. “On these trips I work with hotels, airlines and also fashion brands interested in images and video in these locations,” she explains.
Liu says those in their 20s and 30s seek travel because of FOMO—a byproduct of social media.
“I think the FOMO effect plays a hand here. I wouldn’t say people are travelling more now just to show up their friends, but I do think that increasingly people are measuring their happiness and success by standards set by social media personalities, who tend to represent their lives in an idealised way,” says Liu.
“For the same reason, I think there is an emphasis on recreating experiences—or even images—as seen on social media, rather than to seek out new ones. Maybe people are travelling more, but I feel that the aspect of exploration is being lost,” she says. “For me, it’s about seeking out new inspirations and finding unique and exciting backdrops to create content.”
Photographs by Harla Nuari and Louis Villers