We, Like Ants

by | Jun 25, 2024

The trail of ants led right up to the lip of the canyon. But these were no ants, but people, looking like ants against the perspective of the great canyon, streaming from the Horseshoe Bend parking area by the thousands, day in and day out. Like me, they came in their cars, then on foot to teeter on the edge of the vastness of nature, snap some evidence to share with their social media circle, and drive back to the cool relief of their hotel pool.

This is Page, Arizona, an inhospitable desert for much of the year but a beacon for tourists who wish to discover what thousands of years of water, wind, and sand and the vision of a Universe Creator can carve out of the dry, hot land. And so they and I come at the worst time, in the brutal summer heat, simply because it coincides with the vacation schedule of millions of First World tourists.
Whether it was the perspective of my insignificance sitting on the edge of the canyon rim or the early symptoms of heatstroke, I began to get lost in my thoughts, pondering the impact social media had on places like this. Nearby is Antelope Canyon, once considered a mythological experience due to its infamously difficult access limited to just dozens of tourists per day. But earlier in the day, I was one of hundreds shuffling through the otherworldly scenes of the slot canyons in seemingly never-ending tour groups. Social media has created a popularity explosion in places like this, simultaneously a boon and bane to locals and tourists alike. The mystique of Antelope Canyon is blunted when you can find thousands of photos of its beautiful, twisted canyons on Instagram every day.

(Before moving on, I want to be clear that I think the Navajo Nation, which manages the Antelope Canyon tours located on their lands, is doing as good a job as possible, considering the circumstances. It cannot be easy balancing the insane demand from money-waving tourists who want access to the canyons with the responsibility of being stewards of such unique natural beauty. So you can be a cynic on either side of the fence, but none of us could likely do better. Anyway, back to my dry-heat-induced self-reflection at the rim of the canyon.)

There was a time when we traveled strictly for the pleasure of it all, or at least the illusion of pleasure. Every summer, my family would pack into a camper car and travel around the American West. I learned from my parents how to be ruthless at Gin Rummy and how much I actually disliked the act of camping itself, even if I loved the great outdoors. I took photos of chipmunks, weird shaped sticks I found and tiny inedible bluegill pulled from the lake. The best of these photos might end up in our family photo albums, but most remained memories.

But today, it feels like we travel more for the credibiity than the fun of it all. We need that social media pat-on-the-back and the Instagram reel plays a bigger role in modern vacations than a cutthroat game of cards with your family members. I’ve heard horror stories of tour guides waiting in queue for over an hour for a family to get a famous beef sandwich which was unceremoniously dumped in the trash just after the social media snap (“We’re vegan” was the alleged excuse). If you’ve traveled enough, I’m sure you’ve seen your share of appalling behavior as well.

Social media has been a double-edged sword in the tourism industry, helping some lesser known locations gain popularity, but at the same time maintaining the status quo by promoting views of the same tired places through its promotional algorithms. Face it, you see the same images of convenience stores capped with Mt. Fuji or rando Kyoto temple every time you open Instagram because thousands of people keep Liking them. It’s a vicious circle of the uninspired, and it keeps us going to places we may not have chosen on our own.

I am no innocent bystander in all of this; I have written dozens of travel articles and social media posts for various organizations and publications urging readers like you to visit Japan, and I have been paid for it. I have mostly unsuccessfully built a small social media following by the same urgings. I’m a travel writer, for God’s sake, and my job is to spit and polish the words that make even the remotest parts of Japan shine. My financial viability relies on at least some percentage of you heeding my advice and visiting the places I recommend in Japan. It is the nature of the travel industry, after all.

Now, as Japan bursts at the seams with tourists in all the wrong places, I began to consider my own small role in that situation. Of course, I don’t generally encourage people to visit the typical places in Japan and especially ones that are suffering most from overtourism. But I’m not naive enough to not know that the average visitor to Japan will spend a good percentage of their time in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka even if I promised them paradise elsewhere in Japan.
Every few months, I feel the strong need to write an article like this, an apology and admonishment. An apology to the locals living in Kyoto, Kamakura, small towns around Mt. Fuji, and elsewhere in Japan who have been pushed to their limits by the stress of dealing with tourists infringing on their daily lives. And an admonishment to all of you, to rethink how and why you visit the places you do in Japan. Because you can choose not to make life hell for locals in overtouristed areas. You can see more of Japan than even most Japanese people ever will. You can discover areas of Japan that are good for tourism and bring much-needed economic revival. But you must choose that; nobody can force you to do it.

In thousands of years, future archeologists and anthropologists will discover the path along which millions of their ancestors walked to the edge of a canyon, paused there for ten minutes, and then went home. And in the absence of social media (we can only hope), they may well wonder why, with all the beauty of the world at our doorstep, so many of us came here.

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