Death by travel selfie | Inquirer Opinion

Death by travel selfie

/ 04:20 AM April 15, 2024

Upon arriving at the entrance area for the renowned Cambugahay waterfalls in Siquijor, visitors are warmly greeted by uniformed tour guides. Before my visit, I read in my online research about the place that hiring a guide was unnecessary because of the straightforward layout of the area. But since it was our first time, we did not want to take any chances and ended up enlisting the help of Kuya Edwin, one of the most senior members of the group.

The online reviews were right. As soon as we went down the 135 steps leading to the falls, navigating the area was quite easy. What surprised us, however, was that Kuya Edwin was not just there to help show us around. Unprompted, he coached us on which areas would yield the best pictures. He even borrowed my phone and swung from a rope swing so he could take cinematic videos while we were swimming below. As it turned out, this was a common practice among the guides. While their primary role is to look after visitor safety, it seems they have also embraced the role of “human drones,” committed to giving guests a well-documented and aesthetically pleasing experience for their Instagram and TikTok accounts.

Social media platforms have long transformed the tourism industry. Geotagging has allowed online users to easily see where other people have been, providing exposure not just to famous sites and landmarks but even places in off-beat paths deemed “Instagrammable.” This has also created a new value for places that offer photogenic experiences that promise to bring in likes and shares.

While this has brought livelihood opportunities and economic upliftment in many communities, it is not without major pitfalls. As more established and aspiring influencers vie for online attention, it has also led to an escalation in efforts to stand out, leading at times to disruptive and irresponsible behavior. For example, there are instances of tourists breaking laws for viral content, such as trespassing on private property or touching protected species. Just two weeks ago, a video of vloggers mishandling two tarsiers in South Cotabato earned the ire of the online community. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has since announced that it will file a criminal case against the two people involved.


There are also tourists engaging in extremely risky stunts for the sake of capturing a unique photo, like posing on cliff edges or taking pictures in front of erupting volcanoes. A 2023 research by the University New South Wales reported that there have been at least 379 selfie-related fatalities globally between 2008 and 2021, with victims having an average age of just 22. The most common reason for selfie-related deaths was falling from cliffs and waterfalls, followed by drowning in fast-moving waters like rivers. These alarming numbers highlight the dangerous lengths to which people will go for social media recognition.

Social media has also contributed to overtourism—leading to an overwhelming influx of visitors to places that do not always have the infrastructure to handle the surge. The excessive foot traffic can negatively impact both the environment and the local population: from increasing pollution, particularly plastic waste, to putting a strain on local resources such as the water supply and sewage treatment. The increased demand for tourist accommodations can also drive up local prices, making it difficult for residents to afford housing and other necessities. In 2022, the United Nations called for bigger investment in implementing responsible and sustainable tourism practices that protect local environments, help neutralize carbon emissions, and ensure that tourism profits are truly benefitting the long-term development of local communities.

When I asked Kuya Edwin how he felt about the growing number of tourists in Cambugahay, he said he was grateful for them. During the pandemic, no tourists meant no income and most of them really struggled to get by. He also shared that the locals know the importance of keeping the falls pristine. So they work together to ensure trash is minimized, with the guides reminding tourists to clean up after themselves. There was a palpable sense of pride and dedication in his voice as he discussed his role of being a steward for such a beautiful place.

Various research indicates a promising shift: More tourists want to support destinations and businesses that demonstrate environmental responsibility and promote conservation efforts. The present challenge is how these well-meaning sentiments to be a more conscientious traveler will actually translate into concrete consumer behavior.


Perhaps a simple way to start is by using our online travel posts as opportunities to advocate for responsible tourism practices. Whether it is by showcasing local businesses or encouraging more respectful interaction with the places we visit, we could influence others to contribute to a more ethical and sustainable tourism industry. By doing our part in preserving the communities and environments that host us, we can help ensure that they will continue to be places of wonder and awe for future generations to explore and discover.

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TAGS: Instagram, selfies, TikTok

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