How Smartphones Changed the Way Destinations Promote Themselves


This is how we used to take pictures


This is how we take pictures now

While it’s true that disposable cameras are making a comeback, smartphones aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Quite the contrary, especially since roaming fees tend to disappear, which allows tourists to be connected virtually anywhere.

1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2016, which represent a 5% increased compared to 2015 and 2017 is well on its way to beat the record as the iPhone 8 Plus seems to be taking the cake for best phone camera.

Those devices have changed the way tourists -and people- take pictures, forever.

Two major shifts

Smartphones -and selfies- in combination with instant internet access leads to a new sociological paradigm for photography:

  1. People are now the center of attention

  2. Pictures are meant to be shared

How big is it? According to data from Hootsuite, as of late 2016, 40 billion pictures or videos had been uploaded to instagram since the app launched in 2010 and 95 million were already being uploaded every day.

But that’s not all...

Mobile phones… and mobile tourists

Thanks to the multiplication of low-cost airlines and cheap stays, people tend to travel more and more every year. The number of stays at tourist accommodations within the EU has increased by 35% over the course of 6 years.

This means that the travel market is growing and cities can’t afford not to try and get their share of the cake. Especially since it’s a big, fat, 7 trillion dollars cake.

A tale of many cities

This situation pushes destinations to compete for the attention of tourists, which results in fierce place branding strategies.

An alarming fact you can’t afford to ignore is that social media channels and word of mouth have become the main influential factors when it comes to picking a destination.

This state of things highlights the importance for destinations to take to social media to promote themselves.

Barcelona set a huge social media strategy, organizing its efforts by focusing on 350 city social accounts, developing a brand voice and creating a Social Media Council set to oversee the matter.

Social media is not just a gadget anymore, it’s a central part of touristic communication, which leads to massive investments from municipalities and public organizations.

Tourist Generated Content

If taking to social media is definitely the way to go, the question of the source of the content is essential.

We already mentioned that social recommendations and word of mouth were at the top of list when it comes to make a decision about where to go on vacation.

In other words, social media users are influenced by their peers or people they admire, which is why cities must focus User Generated Content to get people interested in their destination.

You might have an amazing photographer and great postcard-like views to share and you should but that’s not where the bulk of the money is.

Visitors are the best ambassadors, that’s what destinations should be investing in.


Hashtags are what makes navigation on Instagram so easy and constitute the easiest way for users to find pictures related to what they’re interested in.

When it come to travel, a myriad of unofficial communities organized themselves around “IGers” type hashtags such as #igersUSA, #igersParis, #igersZGZ (Zaragoza) or #igersBCN (Barcelona).

Every city, every tourist office and every landmark’s goal should be to dominate the social media arena in their particular sector, put themselves out there with pictures and hashtags referring to it, even if it means having to launch it and set a trend. And we’ll see how that’s possible.

But it is not enough to have plenty of pictures on social media. It’s easy to spam pictures and hashtags or have people do it, but it’s not worth anything if the result is not qualitative. Destinations shouldn’t just present a beautiful image of themselves, they have to show excitement, because that’s what make people take decisions.

What has been done so far?

How do you set this kind a trend? You need to do two things:

  1. Give tourists an exceptional sight or experience that involves taking pictures

  2. Ask them to share their experience, thanks to the pictures they’ve taken.

Albeit, if the picture’s worth it, they’ll share without being asked. Because, you know, that’s what people do.

New-York and San Francisco: The cities spray-painted stencils on the ground near important landmarks to help tourist get the best angle for their selfies.

Norway: For more than 20 years, Norway has been capitalizing on its roads, asking architects to design mind-blowing picnic spots. The concept has been gaining attention from traditional and social media.

Amsterdam: The city had deployed an impressive set of letters saying Iamsterdam in front of the well renowned Rijksmuseum. It became its official brand, locally as well as internationally. The #iamsterdam can be found on more than 928.000 public Instagram profiles, along with #iamsterdamsign or #iamsterdamletters.

Montreal: The city placed a frame branded with the #MTLMOMENTS hashtag at the top of the Mont Royal. The hashtag was shared close to 350,000 times via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter; web traffic increased by 22% and Tourisme Montréal’s YouTube channel recorded 2 million hits.

Brisbane: The city of Brisbane installed huge letters on the south bank of the Brisbane river for the G20 summit of 2014. Even though it was intended as a temporary installation, popularity among locals and tourists turned it into a permanent attraction after the original letters were taken away for security concerns and replaced by brand new replacements, ready for selfies.

Toronto: The Canadian city also set its own letters in Nathan Phillips Square, right outside Toronto City Hall. Various hashtags ranging from #xoTO to #share 3Dto allow to track tens of thousands of social shares.

What’s next?

Brussels: The Belgian -and European!- capital decided to bet on innovation, unleashing the power of panoramic selfies...

The concept? People take a selfie, a regular selfie. Except that they orient themselves towards an HD panoramic camera located 150 meters (164 yards for our imperial system-loving readers) away at a higher point. The result is a short video starting by showing a close up expanding into the whole area around the participants.

Over the course of 21 days, 20.426 visitors (67% foreigners) took a total of 8.017 panoramic selfies, resulting in the #brusselsandme hashtag being found on 748 public Instagram profiles and 2.842 selfies being shared at least once on Facebook.

We don’t know yet what results the operation will yield for Brussels in the near future but one thing is for sure: if you offer a pleasantly uncommon experience to your tourists, they will gladly share it on social media!

In the end, cities, like any brand, have the ability to summon the power of social media and user advocacy, turning “passive” visitors into “active” promoters.

It just needs a little nudge!