Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
What Instagram obsession means for the Millennial vacation.
This would appear to be a story about El Camino Travel, a company that’s received some press for providing participants on its guided tours to Latin America and the Caribbean with an embedded Instagram photographer. Yes, these are trips aimed at millennials. (“Is it indulgent? Of course,” Bloomberg Business wrote earlier this year.)
But El Camino’s vacation packages are really part of a larger story about the sorry state of the snake person vacation, which is brutish and short. A survey from Alamo Rent A Car finds that more than a third of millennials who received vacation days in 2014 worked every day of their time off. Glassdoor discovers that more than half of the country’s workers chose to straight-up forfeit paid vacation days. And as the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes, almost a quarter of American workers don’t even receive paid vacation.
Still, millennials love the idea of travel. Seventy percent of them want to visit every continent, according to a Boston Consulting Group study. Seventy-five percent want to travel abroad as much as possible.
“Travel creates time to reflect on these priorities and decide how our career choices can accommodate them,” then 26-year-old Amanda Machado wrote in The Atlantic in 2014. “We understand that bumming around in our twenties for too long is irresponsible, but we also find it irrational to work unfulfilling jobs only to feel legitimate. And if we have the financial resources to pause, travel, and reassess, then why not take advantage of that privilege?”
Another element of the new millennial travel: documentation. Yes, the stereotypes ring true: young people obsessively chronicle their worlds, everything from what they had for lunch to their trip to the Tour d’Eiffel.
Which is all to say that pausing, reassessing, and unplugging seem to be close to impossible for young people, even for those with the privileges of living in the black. It’s why El Camino partners Katalina Mayorga and Marianna Jamadi send a hand-selected photographer on each of their overseas trips. The theory is that if someone else is taking your picture, there’s no incentive to pull out your phone—and pull yourself out of the moment.
The trip works like this: Every morning of the eight-day, nine-night travel packages, the photographer distributes 20 to 30 edited, often candid pictures, which participants can then use to update their own social media accounts. The result is the Instagram account of your dreams—if your dreams include attractive young adults in soft focus and “exotic” locales.
“We are very, very focused on a certain kind of aesthetic,” Mayorga said of El Camino photography in an interview.
The bigger point of this photographer, Mayorga says, is to free up travelers to experience the cultures of their host countries—and not through the lens of an iPhone camera. When El Camino’s tour guides bring their groups to an AfroColumbian dance performance, a homemade cigar shop, or a traditional flower farm (as they often do), they’re hoping that travelers will be less focused on capturing the moment and more actually, you know, experiencing it. No work email allowed.
The buzzword here—it’s one that Mayorga uses all the time—is “authentic.” As the travel website Skift explains in a piece about millennial travel trends, young people want to be “explorers, never tourists.” This is part of reason El Camino chose to focus on travel packages to locations in Nicaragua, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago—and why its packages focus on introducing travelers to locals.
“[Our locations] are not going to be the next big place, [but] we think we can be part of being trendsetters, pioneers,” Mayorga says. “[We want travelers to say,] ‘Dude…you just need to be here, it’s another world.’”
Of course, balancing finding that “authenticity” with curated social media images is a tricky thing. On one hand, tourism often stimulates local economies; Mayorga says one Guatemalan taxi driver once told her it was this job or the local drug trade. But young travelers should never delude themselves into thinking they’re part of the local culture.
This is all to say that El Camino’s packages feel very current. (This may be why the company’s trips are sold out through 2016.) The state of the millennial vacation is fraught, but so is saving up for vacation, and then getting permission to take it, and then avoiding work while you’re there. It is a fallible world, but it looks pretty great on Instagram.