Your Instagram Geotag Might Be Hurting the Destinations You Visit — How to Post Responsibly

Here's how we can protect precious places without gatekeeping travel.

Woman taking photos on safari
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Undoubtedly, the advent of social media changed the way we travel. Take one look through your Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook feed, and you'll likely come across at least a post or two that gives you just a touch of jealousy or inspires your wanderlust.

While all that posting certainly has its perks — like getting more people to get out and see the globe — it can also stir up debate over how we protect precious spaces while ensuring they're accessible to everyone. On that front, for several years, internet conversation has swirled around the concept of geotagging on social media.

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Here's how geotagging works: While traveling with an internet-connected device like a cellphone, a person may knowingly or unknowingly share their location thanks to global positioning system, or GPS, technology.

GPS technology, first developed for the military, is used in both your car's navigation system and any map apps on your phone. As How Stuff Works explained, "GPS photo tagging, also known as geotagging, is the process of embedding a digital photo with latitude, longitude, and even altitude data."

In simpler terms, geotagging also works when a person shares to a social media site like Instagram and adds a location tag that displays above their photo or video. While being precise is great for navigation, it may also be giving nefarious people — like animal poachers — a leg up in finding their prey.

"In areas where wildlife crime such as poaching is a known issue, or if a traveler has stumbled upon a location known only to locals, the best practice is not to geotag so poachers can't track information," Sherwin Banda, president of Africa Travel Inc., shared with Travel + Leisure.

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However, Banda noted a flipside, adding, "When travelers share their photos and videos responsibly and encourage their friends and families to visit or donate, it brings valuable dollars to places that can effectively continue their successful wildlife conservation projects."

Some environmental activists believe it's not just animals that could be harmed by geotags, but also landscapes due to overtourism spurred by viral photos and videos.

In 2018, The New York Times reported that Delta Lake, a remote area in the Grand Tetons, became one such place after influencers discovered its beauty.

"Influencers started posting from the top of the lake. Then it started racing through social media," Brian Modena, a tourism board member from Jackson Hole, then told The Times. Modena noted that a few years ago, perhaps just one or two hikers would make the nine-mile journey to Delta Lake each day. By 2018, he said as many as 145 people hike it just to get the same exact photo. Because of this, smaller trails are now heavily trafficked, leading to the erosion of land.

"We want people to have a real connection to nature," Modena said, "not just a page with a pin on it."

In the same year, the Hikers For an 8th Leave No Trace Principle group suggested updating the Leave No Trace guidelines to include: "Be mindful when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts that rapidly increased use can have on wild places," and "Use discretion when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts of creating a 'buzz' about specific destinations."

But again, there's another flipside: If we don't share a location with others, are we gatekeeping to ensure that the destination remains only for the few who already know?

In 2019, Leave No Trace shared in an update: "Leave No Trace has always existed on a spectrum — a toolkit to learn from, depending on people's environment, age, personal ethics and a multitude of other factors…The Center operates on the idea that people going outdoors and developing a love for nature is a good thing. The more that anyone is able to learn about how to protect the outdoors — whenever and however that happens in their lifetime — is a good thing. Leave No Trace is not about perfection, it's about action."

Leave No Trace even went as far as to create social media guidelines. As Dana Watts, the organization's executive director, shared with Wyoming Public Media, "The biggest change more recently was with our more clear guidance on we're not anti-geotagging, and there is a reason for that," adding that the organization wasn't comfortable with "this idea of gatekeeping."

So, how can people find the balance and share responsibly?

In "5 Reasons Why You Should Keep Geotagging," one of the most-cited stories regarding the matter, writer Danielle Williams explained, "We don't care whether you are hiking for the 'Gram, taking selfies at overlooks, or enjoying a Sunday afternoon in your recumbent bike. Public lands are for everyone." Williams added, the #nogeotag movement "is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals — usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping — asserting their self-proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn't be allowed into certain outdoor spaces."

Rather than keeping locations secret, Williams suggested several alternatives, including the promotion of state parks over national parks, which typically see thinner crowds, and for officials to work more closely with "conservancies, brands, and various conservation groups to educate the public about environmental stewardship."

In 2022, Williams shared with Travel + Leisure one more suggestion: Make information about permits and land access available in multiple languages on multiple platforms, so everyone can understand what's needed to enjoy public lands. As individuals, Williams added, we can all start to think differently about how we share responsibly online about the great outdoors. This includes advocating for sustainable solutions so more people can enjoy the outdoors without harming the environment.

The outdoor company REI shared its own advice for rethinking the geotag conversation, suggesting individuals include mindful tips if they post about a location, including "stewardship and Leave No Trace notes in your Instagram captions and stories," like the importance of staying on the trail and how to go through the permit process for backcountry camping. It also suggested curating your social feeds to be filled with those accounts that mesh with your sustainable mindset, and amplifying "the stories and actions of people and organizations doing good work around public lands stewardship, education, and advocacy."

Deciding to tag, and how you tag, is ultimately up to you. The good news is, if you've read this far, you're likely already invested in ensuring the world's greatest places remain spectacular for everyone, including the generations to come.

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