The TikTok effect in tourism: When virality is not welcome

The social network can make a place fashionable quickly, which can cause saturation problems in sites that are not prepared for large crowds

TikTok en el turismo
Tourists at the rocky beach of Cala Deia, in Mallorca, Spain.Clara Margais (picture alliance/Getty Images)

Until just a few years ago, Albania used to be an exclusive tourist destination. This summer, however, the endless search for hidden, inexpensive spots brought an avalanche of visitors to its crystal clear beaches. The place even became a source of controversy after a series of influencers criticized the country’s quality as a vacation destination. Their complaint? That the place was not as idyllic as they had seen on TikTok.

A recent study reflects how this platform can spark a sudden increase in the amount of people that visit a certain place. Unlike other social networks, TikTok promotes the videos that generate many interactions quickly; this can lead to the sudden popularity of a destination and cause saturation problems in places intended for much smaller crowds.

Some attributes that differentiate TikTok from other social networks are its virality and its type of users. “One of the key factors of TikTok is its audience, which is younger. Destinations that can be classified as cheaper and easier to access adapt better to the users of this social network,” says Jennifer Mourenza, digital marketing specialist at the AccuraCast agency.

The impact, however, reaches other layers of the population: according to a report made by MGH, a marketing agency that specializes in tourism, 35% of users of this social network in the United States traveled to a new place after seeing it there. Of course, the percentage rises to 45% among people between 25 and 44 years old.

The amount of people who travel to the destinations that are promoted on TikTok — like Albania, whose growth in the tourism sector is indisputable — is not easy to estimate. The country saw a 26% increase in foreign visitors during July, compared to the previous year’s figures. The rise is more noticeable outside of the central summer months: in September, 45% more international tourists arrived, totaling 1.1 million (more than one third of the local population), and last January there were 94% more visitors, according to the Albanian Institute of Statistics. In the first nine months of the year, the country had 29% more tourists than in the same period of 2022.

However, the study published by the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism did find correlations between the TikTok numbers and the on-the-ground data, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan. There, the largest mountain in Jianfengling National Forest Park went from receiving 50 visitors in January 2021 to around 400-600 starting the following month. That happened after somebody posted a video showing the view from the enclave, with a spectacular sunrise emerging from a sea of clouds, which garnered 65,000 likes. Two other points of interest, near the Daguangba Reservoir, also gained sudden popularity after a video got 29,000 likes.

“TikTok’s algorithm is different, and it is more suitable for spreading videos to many people. Stronger virality is achieved. TikTok generates waves of popularity that don’t exist on Instagram,” says Jerome Bergerou, international director at AccuraCast. Both he and Mourenza mention the case of the Cornish beaches, which they know closely because their headquarters are in London. During the pandemic, visits to this British coastal area skyrocketed: “Extremely striking videos were published, showing spectacular beaches that are located in England and that were totally unknown to people, and there was a viral effect,” says Mourenza.

After the lockdown in the United Kingdom, the influx of tourists seeking sun and sand in Cornwall exploded. Figuring out which of these tourists were inspired by TikTok and whether they really represented a significant number is no easy task, especially at a time in which tourism retreated to the interior of countries, to the detriment of international destinations. Still, it seems clear that today Cornwall’s beaches are popular on TikTok, whether one goes by the information published by the local newspaper CornwallLive or by the 26.7 million views garnered by the hashtag #cornwallbeaches.

Although tourism is usually seen as an engine of economic prosperity, these sudden growths come with downsides. The study on the TikTok effect on destination development highlights that the massive, unexpected arrival of visitors caused problems of traffic, crowds and pollution.

Regarding the consequences that an unforeseen increase in visitors can have, journalist Pedro Bravo, author of the essay on mass tourism Exceso de equipaje (Excess baggage), mentions some key points: “There are public services that are prepared to serve a certain amount of people, and they suddenly find themselves saturated. And by public services we can understand everything from water to cleaning, security or waste collection. This continues to happen even in historically saturated places, such as the Balearic Islands.”

In the island of Hainan, the avalanche of visitors brought to light the lack of organized transportation within the national park, as well as the absence of hiking routes and the impact of private vehicles: more traffic and less safety on the narrow mountain roads. In addition, researchers noted a lack of public toilets, garbage cans and eating and drinking facilities.

Environmental problems also arise due to the greater generation of waste and, in many cases, greenhouse gases, according to Bravo. Furthermore, if there is no established hotel infrastructure, accommodation for tourist use will proliferate, making housing more expensive for the local population. “These are the usual problems that come with mass tourism. They exist even in places that are supposed to be used to mass tourism, like the Balearic Islands, Amsterdam, Venice, Madrid or Barcelona. Imagine if you are not even prepared and suddenly you get all this,” the author emphasizes.

Places like the beaches of Cornwall or Albania are already showing signs of overcrowding. Bravo points out that the process differs between a country and a specific place, as the influx of tourists on a national scale requires a prior plan and state involvement. “Usually, in the case of countries, before a wave of tourism comes, the necessary tourist infrastructure has already been put in place. Hotels are needed. There must be negotiations with the airlines so more planes come, and the slots reserved for the airlines have to be cheap in order for the flights to be cheap. Travel agencies also have to include it in their catalogs and make price offers. All of that has happened before the first tiktoker arrives,” he explains.

Then comes the promotion of the destination — which, why not, could take place on TikTok. In 2022, the travel site Breaking Travel News highlighted Albania’s explosive popularity on TikTok that summer. However, as Bergerou points out, it is difficult to know if there is paid content behind it or not. She explains that there are two ways to advertise: the first is direct, with ads. “The other is more effective. It consists in using influencers to generate content about the tourist destination. These influencers are supposed to declare that they are receiving money for promoting the destination, but many times this is not done and it is not always clear which content is paid and which is organic,” says Bergerou.

What is clear in Albania is that there has been previous airport planning in the country. In 2021 it opened its second international airport, in Kukës, apart from the one that the capital, Tirana, already had, and there are plans to build two more in the tourist areas of Saranda and Vlora.

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