The Impact of Social Media on Sensitive Mountain Locations

A Time to Consider.

Having spent the past 20 years immersed in activities that are primarily located in some of the most beautiful, wild and unique places in Ireland I have had lots of time to think about my relationship with the environment, infrastructure and local communities. I have also had the opportunity to see changes occur and reflect upon them.

Without doubt the biggest change in the last 20 years is the rise of social media. Starting in the early 2000’s it is now estimated that 43% of the worlds population is using social media. Invariably it has accelerated curiosity within the general public and created a desire to seek out specific places of great natural beauty. An image shared on social media can capture the imagination and spread like wildfire across multiple platforms.

There is no denying that the more Irish people become interested in responsibly spending time outdoors and in nature the more potential there is for a positive personal and social impact. But with an increase of interest and footfall in places of natural beauty comes added stresses upon specific sensitive locations.

The questions I was curious to explore are:

  • Are there solid examples of social media driven impact upon specific locations internationally and locally?
  • How is the increase in footfall at a specific location driven by social media?
  • What are the consequences?
  • Can we help prevent unnecessary impacts upon specific sensitive locations?

Note:  In case you are browsing this and are not interested in reading further – the take away message is if sharing a picture of a beautiful place in nature consider not tagging the specific location if you think it is a sensitive location. 

Ireland Mountains

Caveat!

The subject of general social media use, the drivers behind using the medium and the plethora of consequences (both positive and negative) is a subject that has reams of audio, visual and written information already out in the public sphere. This blog will not be recovering this ground as I am in no way knowledgeable enough to contribute anything worthwhile on the subject.

This blog has germinated from years of thinking about my personal use of social media and reflecting on real world observations at certain locations. It is also sparked by ruminating on the discussions I have had with friends that are intrinsically involved in protecting the environment, mountain rescue services, outdoor professionals, national park conservationists and rock climbers / mountaineers that have a strong ethical stance on protecting the places within which we express ourselves.

Tourism in Ireland

Examples of Social Media driven Impact Internationally

There are a myriad of international examples of social media driven impact upon places of natural beauty, the below are just a small selection.

This article https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/travel/instagram-geotagging-environment.html in 2018 highlighted the tagging on Instagram of a specific location at the Grand Teton National Park resulting in a significant increase in environmental damage.

In 2018 this piece about an Ontario Sunflower producer https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/01/crowds-trample-canada-sunflower-farm also spoke of a social media driven impact upon a specific location.

Another highly publicised example was Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Arizona. This remote and quite site saw a rapid increase of visitors due to the geo-tagging facility on Instagram – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itjc14Fm-gs

Possibly one of the most internationally recognized locations Maya Bay in Thailand (from The Beech movie) was closed in June 2018 due to the unstainable numbers of visitors in one location. While this is primarily driven by a blockbuster movie, one only needs to check out the #mayabay on Instagram to see how beautiful and appealing the photos are.

There are countless articles and documented cases of social media driven impact upon specific places internationally but what about Ireland?

Examples of Social Media driven Impact in Ireland

On the 16 of February 2021 Coillte provided an estimate of visitor numbers to their forests with an increase of 38% during the Covid restrictions. The Dublin Mountains saw the bulk of this traffic. https://www.coillte.ie/visitor-numbers-triple-to-coilltes-local-forests-during-coivd-lockdown/

While this is not directly attributable to social media and no doubt exacerbated by the restrictions it does point to a general increase of awareness towards exploring forests, mountains and places of natural beauty.

An interesting example of social media driven impact in an Irish mountains landscape is the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on Cuilcagh Mountain in Fermanagh. There have been a few articles over the years from the Fermanagh Herald articulating the potential flash points between locals vs visitors and the strain on the environment and infrastructure. https://fermanaghherald.com/2020/08/tens-of-thousands-flock-to-stairway-to-heaven/

The level of interest and footfall on this attraction is undeniably influenced by social media – check out the #cuilcaghmountain on Instagram. The ‘stairway to heaven’ has become part of the bucket list.

Heart Shaped Lake

Below are two examples in the Wicklow Mountains where social media either has had or is having an effect on sensitive areas.

As most locals to the venue will know the access to Lough Dan was lost recently due to the amount of abandoned camping equipment and rubbish left behind on the beach. https://www.independent.ie/regionals/braypeople/no-access-to-lough-dan-39405838.html

There is no doubt that the number of visitors were exacerbated by the restrictions but regardless it was primarily driven by social media tagging and sharing of beautiful images. The sheer amount of camping paraphernalia abandoned was genuinely bewildering.

The direct result in this instance is a total loss of access for the foreseeable. While this loss of access is a real loss to those that genuinely have love and respect for the location, it is just one of many locations nationally where the tipping point may come where access is lost or complicated.

A second more complicated example is Lough Ouler (either Google it and pick images or check out #loughouler on Instagram) better known as ‘the heart shaped lake.’ This is a good example of a feature in nature that catches the attention for obvious reasons.

The issues with increased numbers visiting this mountain location is in the aforementioned! Lough Ouler is in the mountains in quite a wild and exposed situation. The first consequence is an increase in the erosion of the peatland with the most popular approaches visibly wider and more churned up.

The second consequences of visiting the venue unprepared or having an unfortunate slip is a complicated Mountain Rescue extraction. Both the DWMRT and the GOIMRT saw a 72% increase of call outs during this period vs the same in 2019. Again this was no doubt exacerbated by the restrictions. Nevertheless Lough Owler was one of the venues highlighted during this period – https://www.dwmrt.ie/post/busiest-august-in-recent-memory

A notable mention (similar to Lough Dan) was the camping fiasco along the Avonbeg River in the Glenmalure Valley.

Wild Camping Ireland

Who is in the driving seat?

Those of us that choose to explore our mountains, trails and forests and use social media individually, either personally or professionally, are possibly the most influential group. On the face of it this would seem unlikely, but our small personal social media accounts collectively make up the source material for most of the larger accounts featuring some of the most beautiful pictures of Ireland.

An important player in this group are photographers as they are looking to capture a particular unique aspect of a subject. This often times results in breathtakingly beautiful images that capture the imagination and subsequently can travel widely on the social platforms.

Another creator of beautiful images is the amateur drone operator. With the increasing availability of user friendly drones providing high quality images, often times incredibly beautiful images are shared widely with the geo-tag included.

The national and regional tourism organisations have a big involvement promoting Ireland via social media to the international and domestic market. These organisations play an important and integral part in helping to drive tourism in Ireland and are crucial to help the tourism sector recover. Most of the beautiful pictures used by these organisations are from individuals and photographers.

There is also an increase in bloggers publishing articles about the ‘Secret (insert place name)’ or the ’10 best wild camping venues.’ These articles easily gain traction on social media and are shared widely. Occasionally they will outline exactly where a certain venue is, some of which are sensitive with a regard to environment, parking or access.

Djouce Mountain

The Influencer

This is possibly the word used most frequently with distain when discussing the social media impact upon specific sensitive locations in nature. I have heard this word practically spit in rage when someone was posing taking photos recently in a beautiful location. But to potentially influence a change in behaviour one has to understand rather than castigate!

What is an Influencer? – https://influencermarketinghub.com/what-is-an-influencer/

Social Media Statistics – https://www.bigcommerce.com/blog/influencer-marketing-statistics/#the-biggest-influencer-marketing-challenges

How organized is Influencer marketing? – https://sproutsocial.com/insights/influencer-marketing/

With an estimate of 43% or the worlds population using social media and with a global revenue into the billions social media use will only evolve further. There is zero chance of putting the genie back in the bottle.

Wicklow Ireland

What are the consequences of increased visitation to a specific sensitive area?

As already highlighted the social media driven increase of visitation at a sensitive outdoor location does have tangible consequences.

The environmental impact is a major concern in sensitive mountain environments as peatlands are easily eroded and increased visitation can lead to exceptional levels of littering. This was certainly experienced by anyone exploring the Wicklow forest trails close to roads during 2020 (levels I have not personally seen in 20 years of exploring the trails). Lough Dan and Glenmalure are prime examples with regard to littering.

Social media was alight with examples of inconsiderate parking during the easing of the restrictions in 2020 as vehicles blocked entrances and roads as mountain rescue tried to get to the scene of call-outs. This can not only cause a delay in the emergency services helping a party in distress but it also can exacerbate relationships between recreational visitors and land owners. Highly visible examples of this recently were on the Trassey and Head road in the Mourne Mountains.

Bringing dogs into highly sensitive upland farming areas and straining landowner relationships is possibly another consequence of someone venturing into mountain locations for the first time hunting a specific image. Completely randomly during the writing of this a local landowner walked into the room and I asked his opinion about dogs on his land. He had several stories about severe attacks on sheep over the years by local pets. As a passionate dog lover himself he suggested that if they are on a leash then he is fine with that but they must always stay on a leash. The issue in Ireland is that this viewpoint can differ dramatically depending on the historical experience of the landowner.

Another consequence is an increased occurrences of assistance or rescue by the Mountain Rescue Teams in remote complex locations. An example of this was the level of assistance provided by Mourne Mountain Rescue Team during recent snow in the Mourne Mountains. Photographs and video of beautiful scenes in the snow on Donard and surrounding mountains caught the imagination and spread like wildfire. Check out the #mournemountains on Instagram.

These are just a few of the more obvious consequences of an increase of visitation at a specific mountain location with many more subtle environmental and social consequences hidden a bit deeper.

Wicklow Mountains

Can we help prevent social media driven impact upon specific locations?

The simple answer to this I believe is yes but it requires a nuanced approach by individual social media users, organisations that use those images and bloggers publishing articles.

The Individual Social Media User:

If sharing a photograph via social media consider if the specific location is sensitive? Imagine your picture goes viral. Will an increase in numbers visiting that specific location have consequences? If so then consider not tagging the specific location of the photo and/or obscure the location. If there is a beautiful lake or view then consider tagging the general location rather than the specific. If the access to the location is via private land consider how a viral image may affect the access for others that want to enjoy the same view.

If you are asked in either the comments or via private messages where a specific location is then consider replying politely that the area is potentially sensitive and you are choosing to not share a specific location.

Local and Regional Tourism Organisations:

If a local or regional tourism organisation is sharing beautiful images and the original content creator has considered the sensitivity of a specific location then there is no action required. The reality is that tens of thousands of images are shared by tourism organisations each year and the likelihood that they could ‘sensitivity’ check each picture is not practical. Therefore the focus has to be on the original content creator.

The Social Bloggers:

If posting an article about a specific location then potentially consider the following:

  • Is the specific location environmentally sensitive?
  • If the article goes viral will an increase in numbers compromise access. Is the access to the venue private?
  • If the specific location is in the mountains have you provided sufficient information regarding the appropriate equipment and experience to safely go to that location?

The social blogger has a significant advantage over the Instagram users as they have the space to share more contextual information that may help protect the specific venue, help keep the visitor safe and protect the current level of access.

Winter in the Wicklow Mountains

Creative Thinking and Resources.

I think it is fair to suggest that a more creative approach is required in the future to address the rise of visitation to a potentially sensitive outdoor location. The use of social media and the evolving technology will undoubtedly drive this juggernaut forward therefore to not effectively embrace and engage with the target audience by the very same medium is missing a significant opportunity.

Below are a few useful resources that if channelled into a catchy effective promotional strategies on the various social media platforms would potentially effect changes in behaviour.

In an age where there is a plethora of competing stimulus and where a social media users may spend an average of between 2.5 seconds and 1.7 seconds absorbing a specific piece of content, a ream of best practice text (on some sites incredibly small text) will almost certainly not grab the attention of those that are driven by social media to visit a specific location.

In order to effect change, creative dynamic eye catching campaigns need to be rolled out across all the social media platforms.

In the meantime individual social media users and bloggers posting images to various platforms could take a moment and consider if the specific location is sensitive with regard to the environment, infrastructure (parking) and access.
If they feel it is then consider treading lightly and either not tag the specific location or considering not sharing the image.

I hope some may find this blog useful and while there are many negative aspects to the use of social media it can also be a powerful force towards more inclusion, understanding, respect and personal / social wellbeing.