The Geotagging Debate: Safety, Privacy, and Ethical Tourism

Examining the Geotagging Debate

By Amanda Winstead

The outdoors is a sacred space for many, allowing people to escape from the throes of daily life. You can hike in the mountains, dip your toes in a lake, or visit a well-known landmark. However, it’s not often that you would travel to these destinations, near or far, without a smartphone.

Whether or not the outdoor locations you are visiting have cell service, there are benefits to bringing a smartphone along. Access to your phone means enhanced safety and connectedness. Many people choose to tag their exact location on social media, referred to as geotagging. The debate surrounding geotagging is multifaceted, so it’s crucial to learn the perks and drawbacks of the practice before engaging in it.

The Case Against Geotagging Outdoor Destinations

From personal safety concerns to environmental and financial issues, there are several reasons why people and organizations may be against geotagging.

Unsustainable Tourism

Of course, the outdoors should be able to be explored and enjoyed by all. The world is full of untapped gems just waiting to be found. However, if those pristine locations become more well-known, they run the risk of becoming overcrowded with tourists.

While this may seem like locals or experienced travelers trying to gatekeep locations, it’s about much more than that. News outlets have exclaimed that relatively untouched New Zealand spots have been ruined by social media oversharing.

Sustainable tourism is important to the health of the environment and the development of the tourism industry, as a whole. Although it seems as though more tourists would equal more revenue and hype, the basis of these tourist destinations is the environment in which they thrive. If they are overrun and tourist companies don’t have the capacity to keep up, this can lead to many issues down the line.

Pristine places are pristine for a reason — there aren’t many people that trample them with reckless abandon. Locals also likely have a sociological attachment to the area. Too many visitors can mean too many people that don’t understand and respect the location, leading to feelings of unrest among respectful tourists and locals alike.

Public Safety

If someone sees a picturesque location tagged on Instagram, they may try to add a picture of the same spot to their feed. This isn’t inherently bad, and the users posting the photos obviously aren’t trying to gatekeep the location since it is tagged. However, not all locations are created equal.

There may be a spot that requires significant outdoor recreation skills to visit. If this isn’t clear from the post, it may draw visitors that are putting themselves at risk of injury. The area may also not be the safest, even if it is beautiful in the image on social media. If this isn’t disclosed, unsuspecting visitors may be unwittingly putting themselves in danger.

Privacy Concerns

Geotagging seems innocuous, but there are bad actors everywhere — especially online. If someone wants to know your exact location, geotagging makes it much easier. They can stalk your social media page and click on your tagged location to follow you. If you are worried about someone finding your location, geotagging may not be the best route to take. Smartphones also typically automatically geotag your photos if you don’t go into settings and change this. This is a privacy concern for many.

Geotagged photo location stamped with GPStamper
Geotagged image stamped with GPStamper
400 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611, USA
Author: Mikelee33 at English Wikipedia

In Favor of Geotagging Outdoor Locations

Geotagging also has its perks. There are good reasons why many people on social media tag their exact location, especially when out hiking or enjoying the great outdoors. Aside from letting their followers know that they were in a beautiful location, geotagging has the following benefits.

Enhanced Tourism and Brand Boosting

If done respectfully and successfully, geotagging can increase awareness of tourist spots. Somewhere that may not have been on the proverbial map before has the opportunity to receive an influx of visitors after being seen on social media. Further, travel bloggers and even tourism companies can get more eyes on their content by geotagging.

Marketers know the importance of hashtags on Instagram and other social platforms. Hashtags for the location will get social traffic and engagement. Geotags work in much the same way, allowing users to search for a specific location and see the posts tagged there. What’s more, influencers and brands can geotag a post, and their followers can click through to see the exact location. This enhances the number of eyes on a location. If enhanced tourism is the goal, geotagging is a fantastic way to achieve that.

Accessibility and Diversity

Strenuous hikes or even just outdoor locations aren’t always accessible to everyone. Geotagging opens up these environments to those users that may not otherwise be able to enjoy them. It also brings awareness to accessible areas if the social media user discloses that in their posts.

Further, a more diverse population can reach a spot if it’s geotagged. Beautiful locations often have cultural significance, and a diverse array of tourists now have the opportunity to learn about the location’s history and the people who created it.

Building Appreciation for Nature

It may seem counterintuitive to use technology to promote appreciation for nature, but it can be quite resourceful and effective if done correctly. Online influencers and organizations have a unique sway on the public. Seeing someone you look up to post about hiking, biking, or swimming in a specific location could make you want to do the same.

The posts can even link to articles about how to connect with nature through activities and specific spots, increasing awareness. Any type of environmental awareness is key to improving the planet. If you can reach people where they are — online — by geotagging, then it’s a fast track to increasing their appreciation for nature and, hopefully, changing their environmental habits in the future.

The Geotagging Debate: Swedish Nationalmuseum, seen across the water from the Royal Castle in Stockholm. Blue sky overhead and many people walking around by the water.
Swedish Nationalmuseum, seen across the water from the Royal Castle in Stockholm. From left to right are (1) Nationalmuseum, (2) Nordiska museet, (3) the bridge to island Skeppsholmen.
This image is of well-visited tourism destinations is geotagged. The photographer’s view is at 59°19′39″N 18°04′21″E, the Nationalmuseum is at 59°19′42″N 18°04′38″E and the Nordiska museet is at 59°19′45″N 18°05′35″E.

How To Use Geotagging Safely, Ethically, and Sustainably

You don’t have to be completely pro- or anti-geotagging. These extremes have their downfalls, as well. As this article has shown, there are benefits and drawbacks to geotagging. Luckily, there are ways you can use the practice to your advantage and the advantage of the environment and tourism industry at the same time.

Research Locations

Whether you’re the poster or viewer, you should research the location tagged. If you’re going to tag the location of a beautiful photo and tout it as a great place to visit, you should give your followers some key information about the place. Particularly if it has rough terrain or shouldn’t be visited during certain times, you should include that info in the caption.

Even better, you can link to resources — whether on your own outdoorsy blog or on the official website for the spot. For example, if you post a picture on Instagram and geotag Roy’s Peak Track in Wanaka, New Zealand, you could write a blurb in the caption about the hiking level required to get to the precise location of your photo. Then, direct your followers to a link in your bio to either the Roy’s Peak information website or a blog post that has well-researched information about the area from your point of view.

Similarly, if you see a social media post geotagged at a specific location that piques your interest, do your research. You know your outdoor skill level better than anyone. Apply this knowledge and evaluate whether or not the location is accessible to you. With Roy’s Peak, for instance, you may see a stunning capture of snow-capped mountains cascading atop a seemingly untouched bay. Upon further research, however, you will find that it takes about a five- or six-hour hike to reach that destination.

Check Your Settings

Often, your smartphone can track your location and automatically geotag a picture that you take. This can be beneficial in a couple of situations.

If someone goes missing, for instance, their photos can be scoured for location information to see their last whereabouts. A less sinister benefit deals with location-specific search engine rankings. Geotagging your Google My Business photos gives the search engine information about exactly where your business occurs. If your photos are automatically tagged this way, you don’t have to go in and do it manually for this to enhance your location-specific rankings.

However, if you’re a travel blogger, outdoor enthusiast, or casual traveler, you may want to check your phone settings before heading out. If you don’t want your specific location tracked by hackers or anyone that has your location, you can turn off location settings. This can make it harder to find you if you are lost, however, so weigh the advantages and disadvantages when setting up your device.

Post After You’ve Left

If you still desire to use geotagging based on the benefits described above, you can certainly do so. However, if your privacy is important to you, you can geotag your posts after you’ve already left the location. This can be minutes, days, or months after you have explored the area. This way, you won’t be alerting followers with ill intentions about your exact location in real-time.

Respect the Location and Practice Sustainable Tourism

Whether you plan to geotag your location or not, you should practice sustainable tourism while out and about. In fact, it’s trendy to travel sustainably and post about it. Prepare for your trip, whether it’s internationally or down the road in your own town. Think about the following:

  • Eco-friendly accommodations and transportation;
  • Recycling locations and waste produced from food;
  • How to interact with the local wildlife respectfully;
  • Cultural considerations.

Final Thoughts on the Geotagging Debate

Whether you choose to geotag your photos and social posts or not, you have a responsibility to treat each location you visit with respect. Do your research and you can find some surprising, fun ways to travel sustainably.

About the Author

Amanda Winstead is a writer focusing on many topics including technology and digital marketing. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.