Bad influencers: Is Instagram wrecking our tourist attractions?
Locals are increasingly bothered by phone-wielding visitors swarming round picturesque locations hell-bent on getting that perfect shot. Regina Lavelle finds out how selfie culture is affecting our tourist hotspots on our national treasures
In 2017, tourists visiting the Giant's Causeway hit one million in a year for the first time. The same year, it was named the most Instagrammed location on the island of Ireland.
The phenomenon of 'Instagram Tourism' has become something of a rallying cry for those protesting the besiegement of their picturesque cities and towns by iPhone-wielding influencers.
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Residents of West London's Notting Hill bemoan influencers doing shoots against the brightly painted front steps of their stucco houses, while Oia locals in Santorini, Greece, complain Instagrammers coming to capture the blue-and-white houses make high season unbearable.
But even our own island has seen noticeable spikes in numbers in the past decade. Whether Instagram-driven or not, such dramatic increases bring fresh challenges for the management of our tourism hotspots, particularly from a conservation point of view.
As is the case at Antrim's Giant's Causeway, where last year a record 1.03 million visited.
Such numbers mean that many will not experience the glorious isolation depicted online, something of a challenge for the site's caretakers, the National Trust.
"Instagram certainly has a part to play in how we can accurately represent the visitor experience," says Jennifer Michael, Senior Marketing and Communications Officer at the Causeway. "We have a responsibility to represent what the site is genuinely like, in an effort to manage visitors' expectations. And yes, if you come early in the morning or late in the day, you can have space to enjoy the stones, but if you come in the middle of the day in the summer months, there will be a lot of people around you.
"The trouble is, if you see a gorgeous photo on Insta of one person standing on the Causeway, the reality is, if you come in July, you are not going to have that experience. We try to encourage journalists, bloggers and social media influencers to show that it's a very busy site. This year, we launched a sustainability study to examine the physical capacity, but also the ecological, socio-cultural and the experiential."
Not all of the Causeway's visitors are there because of social media. Michael mentions the impact of Game Of Thrones on Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which introduced a ticketing system in 2017 to cope with demand.
But there are some whose motivations are unequivocal.
"We have visitors who fly into Dublin, drive up and really just want a selfie on the stones and then they want to leave," she says. "I've experienced visitors showing me a picture of someone posing on their phone and asking me: 'Where is that stone?'"
Other monuments in the Republic have also seen climbing numbers.
The Cliffs of Moher (536,015 posts) is currently outstripping even Temple Bar (442,645 posts) on Instagram. Cliffs of Moher Marketing Manager Maura Fay says they've worked with the community to make the attraction "more of an experience".
"People can now go off, walk in either direction and get away from the crowds. There was a huge amount of work done creating an 18km walk from Doolin to Liscannor along the cliffs. You hear Instagram and bucket list a lot. And that's natural. The numbers are becoming really large now. It's now one of the most famous places in the world. Of course, people want to visit.
"Part of our remit is to encourage people to stay in Clare and there's definitely a romanticism to the Wild Atlantic Way people want to tap into." Not every attraction has the ability to expand to accommodate larger numbers, however.
And while strategic management of promotional material from organisations like Tourism Ireland - the fourth most popular tourism board in the world on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - can encourage tourists off the beaten track, no amount of strategy can outrun Star Wars.
One might imagine it could be quite uncomfortable being responsible for managing Skellig Michael when it's suddenly social media fodder for millions.
"I don't feel under pressure from tourism people with the Skellig," says Frank Shalvey, Principal Officer National Monuments, OPW, "although in terms of popular culture, the popularity spike was about Star Wars [The Force Awakens] and it has increased demand. There are more people who would like to go. But we haven't increased the capacity, nor will we. We haven't come under pressure either, but there are other sites which are a bit more tricky."
Some OPW attractions have experienced significant increases in popularity in recent years, amongst them open sites like the Rock of Cashel, whose visitor numbers increased from 300,000 to over 376,000 between 2015 and 2017, and the Hill of Tara, from 160,000 to 198,000.
"We wouldn't really have noticed numbers jumping that way to give us immediate cause for concern," adds Shalvey. "It might emerge over a period of years that we become concerned - the numbers going up exponentially every year.
"The canary in the coalmine is the monument being damaged, the fabric being irretrievably lost, that's the trigger point. More typically where it would manifest is in the visitors' facilities.
"Long before we could get to the point where historic fabric is being lost - much further out, the cafe, the car park, toilets - you'll notice the inadequacy of those facilities. That's where we're struggling in some places to keep up with demand."
Some critics of Instagram tourists say they increase numbers but not revenue, failing to stump up for, for example, visitor centres or cafe lunches. Yet the revenue mostly goes to the Exchequer rather than to the site directly. The sites run on an allocated budget.
"No. We don't get to keep that money," says Shalvey. "The Department of Finance rules apply. We lodge all of that to the Exchequer and we don't get to retain any of that income. We're 100pc funded by the Exchequer.
"In terms of getting more money to fund what we do, it's a challenge. Wages go up and building costs go up, insurance costs go up, everything increases. But it's a public department and there are always pressures on funding."
Instagram tourism appears more of an issue when areas can't control it. Some, albeit unwittingly, have used Instagram to drive traffic on to forgotten parts of cities.
The Temple Bar initiative, Love Your Lanes, undertaken four years ago, intended to clean up back streets and open them up with street art in the hope footfall would follow. It did - taking Instagrammers with it.
"We were working on the area for six to eight years, cleaning up the laneways, litter picking etc," says Director of Marketing with The Temple Bar Company, Claudine Murray. "Then we set about creating street art in partnership with the City Council and a mix of artists. And that's become a real focus for Instagram and social media."
Love Your Lanes has also helped ease congestion on the areas' narrow thoroughfares.
"The Lanes initiative helps spread the traffic. Now with so many streets, it's fairly evenly spread. There's activity everywhere. The lanes encourage people to take pictures and we have walking tours and bike tours on them now."
What kind of image, one might wonder, performs well in terms of Brand Ireland abroad?
The great locations above? One of our celebrated writers, perhaps. You'd be wrong. The answer, it appears, is sheep.
"In terms of the most popular posts, images of sheep are routinely popular on our Instagram and Facebook," says Sinead Grace, Media and Public Relations Manager with Tourism Ireland.
"If you look at the recent posts on our @tourismireland Instagram account, you'll see the most-liked image is the one which includes a sheep."
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