Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: don't cast an evil spell with your selfie stick

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay monitors the use and abuse of the selfie stick © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

There is a video on YouTube of a fight between a pair of tourists on a sightseeing cruise in Sydney Harbour. The two men brawl on deck after encroaching on each other's selfies. The video is a fake, apparently, but like most good parodies it feels uncomfortably close to the truth, and I'd bet that a similar scene has played out somewhere in the real world.

This simulated scuffle starts after a clash of selfie sticks, the accessory of choice for many a pea-brained traveller. Wielded without thought, the selfie stick is more than just a piece of plastic ruining other people’s view; it is a malign wand that, with a single waft, has the power to transform the bearer into an imbecile in the vicinity of the world's most beautiful backdrops. You don't need a selfie stick to behave like a halfwit, of course (but it helps); a camera alone will suffice if all you ever do is see the world through its lens. In fact, some travellers seem to spend so much time squinting through a viewfinder, they might as well have the device surgically attached to their face.

Compulsive box-ticking

Everyone wants to record their experiences on holiday. Nothing wrong with that. But taken to an extreme, this behaviour reduces the travel experience to a box-ticking exercise – and the compulsive quest for a self-mythologising shot in service of social media has spread the disease. For the worst sufferers, a visit to a real place hardly seems worth the bother. Wouldn't it be better to stay at home, invest in some image editing software, and spend the time superimposing your pouting/gurning face on to an exotic background instead? It'd be far, far cheaper; it would expand the number of places you could 'go' (without leaving the house); most importantly, it'd be a hell of a relief for the rest of us.

Group of smiling teenage friends taking selfie with smartphone and monopod with the Colosseum ruins in background © Syda Productions / Shutterstock The selfie... would it just be easier to Photoshop yourself on to famous backdrops instead of bothering to travel? © Syda Productions / Shutterstock

Looking like a twit as you unwittingly trash someone else’s experience isn’t the worst of it, either. The exemplars of buffoonery abroad manage to offend their hosts as well. The obvious example this year is the group who posed naked atop Mt Kinabalu, thus offending Malays who see it as a sacred place. But they're just the latest to join a conga line of boors behaving badly; people who ride roughshod over local mores, or don’t give a hoot about their impact on fragile environments. You’ve seen them in Cimetière Du Père Lachaise defacing Oscar Wilde’s tomb with hot pink lipstick; you’ve seen them scratching their initials into the pillars of the Colosseum; you’ve seen them trampling coral with carelessly placed flippers on the Great Barrier Reef.

Big Bruv is watching

A few months ago, I saw them at the Cliffs of Moher, where a waist-high barrier prevents people from getting too close to the 200-odd metre drop into the Atlantic. Signs warn of the danger, not to mention the damage caused to this fast-eroding coastline. But as I gazed at the cliffs melting in the haze, a woman appeared by my side, clambered over the barrier, and strode to within a foot of the edge, whereupon she gave a double V for victory as her tittering friend recorded the moment.

If warning signs aren't enough, what else can be done to curb the excesses of this moronic minority of travellers? The Chinese have a radical solution: their National Tourism Administration is compiling a blacklist of people who damage cultural relics and ignore social customs, among other misdemeanours. It sounds more than a trifle sinister – an Orwellian agency monitoring your downtime – but perhaps they don’t have any faith in a hearts-and-minds approach.

Me? I’d prefer to see a campaign encouraging travellers to put their selfie sticks away for a day, to lower the camera from their faces for an hour, to make a conscious and concerted effort just to be there, be there now, allowing a little time for contemplation and curiosity rather than perfecting their Blue Steel look.