How ‘travel aesthetics’ are ruining travel for everyone

Social media is overflowing with picture-perfect travel imagery. But the #travelaesthetic trend is a problem for destinations – and for travellers too

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham
News Editor, Time Out UK and Time Out London
Travel aesthetics
Image: Time Out / Shutterstock

Earlier this month, an American writer went low-key viral for a piece in which she complained about how much she hated her time studying abroard in Florence. ‘I grew to despise the sights, hated the people, and couldn't wait to get back home,’ wrote Stacia Datskovska.

The problem? Her time in Italy failed to live up to her dolce vita fantasy: ‘fun potluck dinners with my roommates, summer flings with people who called me “bella,” gelato that dripped down my fingers in the heat, and natural wine that paired effortlessly with good conversation and better prosciutto’. Compared to that, real life – even somewhere as gorgeous as Florence – could hardly fail to be a letdown.

It’s a classic case of mismatched expectations. And you know what? You’re probably guilty of it too.

Aesthetic world

Let’s talk about ‘travel aesthetics’. You may or may not recognise the term, but you’ll definitely know what they are. Think of Japan, and you might think of a mass of cherry blossom dotted with temples, or maybe a blaze of futuristic neon lights. Think of Greece, and you’re likely picturing an island full of white houses slathered in bougainvillea, maybe with the hotel from Mamma Mia! thrown in. Think Paris, and you’ll likely imagine an obscenely picturesque cobbled backstreet, with the Eiffel Tower peeping into view – in springtime, obviously.

And it’s likely that none of the scenes you’ve imagined actually exist. They’re fantasies, composites: one-shot representations of a whole country or city’s ‘aesthetic’. They’ve been subliminally drummed into each of us over the years by TV, movies, magazine articles, travel guides… and now, especially, social media.

Take to TikTok and you’ll see that #travelaesthetic has over 66 million views. #londonaesthetic boasts 47 million and #japanaesthetic an enormous 91 million views. Head over to Instagram and you’ll see nearly 48,000 ‘travel aesthetic’ tags, plus thousands for specific places like Paris (another 48,000), London (89,000) or Japan (76,000). Once you start looking, travel aesthetics are everywhere.

A few things make up the classic ‘travel aesthetic’ social post. Cute streets, sweeping views, landmarks and greenery are key. Clichés abound: the more obvious, the better. People are notably absent – too messy – unless it’s the person posting the pic giving main-character energy in the centre of the frame.

So? You might ask. What’s new? Ever since travel went mass-market, people (and especially tourist boards) have tried to distil a whole culture or destination into a single image, tapping into people’s wanderlust and desire to be somewhere far from their daily lives. The lineage of ‘travel aesthetics’ goes right back to classic travel brochures, or even old-school picture postcards.

But in the era of visually led social media, it’s a trend that’s become supercharged – partly by the ‘set-jetting’ phenomenon of people visiting somewhere based on TV shows or films, like the beautiful clichés of ‘Emily in Paris’.

More than ever, the idea of culture as an aesthetic – as something to be enjoyed purely visually and shared online – is guiding how people travel. Travel aesthetics are Gen Z’s sophisticated twist on aspirational tourism: a series of visual cues that construct a particularly seductive and persuasive version of a place. It’s a – usually – well-meaning form of immersive, escapist travel inspiration.

Florence syndrome

So why is this a problem? Well, just look at Stacia Datskovska’s experience in Florence. By travelling with a head full of aesthetics, you’re risking a TikTok-era form of Paris syndrome: a genuine phenomenon in which travellers to the French capital have found themselves so extremely disappointed with the reality of the city that they have ended up in serious psychiatric distress.

Or look at the furore around another Italian city: Milan. Lulled by TikTok into internalising the Milan aesthetic – as a city of spectacular style, with a haute-couture boutique or gothic cathedral on every corner – many recent visitors have been severely let down by the post-industrial metropolis they find instead. (For what it's worth, there are plenty of excellent things to do in Milan besides walking around and eating.)

The fact is that, if you’re visiting a real place in search of an aesthetic, you’re tempting serious disappointment. And in a final twist, that disappointment can be made worse by the number of your fellow travellers who are also there for the aesthetic. After all, if all the most picturesque spots in town are mobbed by TikTok tourists, no one’s getting the perfect shot they’ve come to capture.

Us and them

That’s not the only problem, though. By their very nature, travel aesthetics reduce an entire complex destination to a series of clichés and stereotypes. Often it means boiling down a culture to its most basic caricatures – sometimes racist and xenophobic ones.

This has roots in cultural and historical power dynamics – specifically, the lingering ignorance and prejudices of (typically, but not exclusively) rich, white, Western travellers and societies. Being defined so stereotypically is something many countries and peoples actively fight against, from ‘tribal’ stereotypes in Africa to the emasculation of east Asian men.

To use the features of another culture for purely aesthetic purposes often means perpetuating a power imbalance that has existed since colonial times. It’s a continuation of what Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said termed ‘orientalism’: the distinction of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has the effect of maintaining historic power imbalances, no matter how well-intentioned it might be.

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Plus, once you view a culture as something that is largely visual – rather than complex and, above all, human – aesthetics can provide a short step to something much more damaging. You could argue that once a place has been decontextualised and made unreal, its inhabitants are more likely to become stereotyped and dehumanised. Once you view Japan as a mystical, gorgeous wonderland of sakura blossoms and Blade Runner-style skyscrapers, it’s arguably only a short step to fetishising geishas and women dressed as maids or schoolchildren.

And while it’s always been true that no culture can be effectively summed up in one image, social media has changed the game. Competing for seconds-long attention spans, the simplification has grown even more reductive.  

All this stuff is bad. But it’s also deeply tempting. Who wouldn’t want to be the perfect traveller, dreamily wandering through glamorous (yet strangely uncrowded) settings with hardly more depth than a film set?

However, we’re here to tell you that you can – and should – fight back against the lure of the aesthetic. Ideally, you’ll head to some of the world’s many underrated destinationsplaces that need more travellers, not fewer.

But if you are looking to tick off those bucket-list spots, there are always more interesting reasons to visit a place than visual clichés and aesthetic clout. Above all, remember that you’re dealing with an actual culture and real people – and that, just like wherever you’re from, it’s always more complex than it looks on Instagram.

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