Meet the Sleepy Wiltshire Village that Instagram Destroyed

Castle Combe in Wiltshire - one of the villages most famous for overtourism
Castle Combe was a sleepy village in Wiltshire, until a few Instagrammers showed up

Hey Owlets,

After decades of marketing agencies vying for the attention of tourists across the globe, cheap flights and now the power of social media, the days of countries frantically advertising their homeland as a holiday destination are now over for many. In their place sit tourist taxes, “destination management” offices (the new-fangled term for marketing agencies that encourage tourists OUT of their city) and often unfriendly locals. While we’ve been hearing about over-tourism and the dangers around it for years, it feels even more prominent in the post-covid travel boom.

What is Overtourism?

Overtourism is pretty much exactly what it sounds like - the issue where so many people want to visit the same place that it becomes less enjoyable for everyone, both locals and tourists, and in some cases actually damages the local economy and city surroundings.

Venice and Amsterdam are potentially the two cities suffering the most at the hands of overtourism. Several documentaries have visited Venice, only to find streets full of empty apartments as they’re bought up for tourists and offered at inflated prices that force the locals to move away. In the last few years the Venetian government moved to ban cruise ships from the historic harbour as the wash from the ships was beginning to erode the historic banks and flood the city - not to mention the pollution that came with many older ships. Amsterdam has faced a similar issue, although arguably not as drastic. Walk along the picturesque side streets or along the canals in off-season and you’ll still hear a multitude of languages that aren’t Dutch, because the only people that can afford to live in the city are those wealthy enough to have migrated there. 

The Instagram famous bridge in Castle Combe, so crowded that cars can't drive over it.

Overtourism in the Social Media Age - 

While in decades gone by the problem with over tourism was a result of over-marketing, the social media age has kicked the issue into a higher gear that’s resulted in villages and towns in the middle of nowhere suddenly finding themselves overrun with tourists, leaving locals unable to live their lives as normal.

A few weeks ago I visited Castle Combe with our friend. We’d already decided on the vague plan of going to visit some scenic villages in the Cotswolds, but Castle Combe was his request - he himself having found it on Instagram. We crossed the border into Wiltshire expecting a quiet little chocolate box village that would be perfect for a lunch time wander. What we found instead was chaos. The closest parking spot we could find involved a mile walk into the village, and when we finally arrived we found the Instagram-bridge absolutely overrun with people taking selfies or recreating the poses they’d seen Instagram-famous bloggers doing (although the blogger photos made the village look almost abandoned). 

My friend is a photographer and usually asks to take some photos of me while we’re out, but in this case it was almost impossible. There were so many people that cars were unable to drive through the village and resorted to blasting their horn on several occasions - not quite the idyllic village scenario that Instagram hinted at. 

We still got some great photos in other parts of the village, but I now find myself hesitant to post them. If I also post these gorgeous photos of the little chocolate box village dream that Instagram sold me then am I not part of the problem?

Castle Combe isn’t the only place to suffer the “Instagram effect”. Every so often a page with a large following posts about a small village or town. This gets reposted or shared by thousands of other accounts and all of a sudden this hidden gem that’s remained mostly undiscovered finds itself being trampled on by hoards of tourists with selfie sticks, desperate to get the perfect shot. 

I actually commented on a few photos of Castle Combe from accounts that had posted the empty village scenes, asking what time of day/year they visited. Most accounts came back to me with a cheery message, recommending I wait until summer to visit because it will get light earlier so I can visit just after sunrise. The least absurd answer was 8am, but even that is ridiculous. I’d like to add that this person drove from LONDON to get there for 8am. It’s just not worth it in my eyes - find somewhere else to visit, somewhere off the beaten track which is truly a hidden gem. 

A family eating their own food at one of the pub tables

What Can be Done?

Honestly I don’t know. As long as there is Instagram there will be stereotypical white, thin and blonde influencers that are almost pre-programmed to go viral because they look how a travel blogger “should look”. Equally, there are photography repost accounts with millions of followers that have the power to send a stampede to an obscure village with a single post.

My account isn’t massive - I have around 16,000 followers - but I’m still conscious of my impact. I wanted to share the photos of Castle Combe but I didn’t want to perpetuate the fake image that you’ll have this picture-perfect village to yourself. I guess that’s why I’m writing this, and why I shared the “Instagram vs Reality” on my stories. Whenever I post pictures on my feed I include the city I visited, but never the exact location. This is done on purpose to ensure that I don’t contribute to the same problem that I’m complaining about. If you ever ask me for a more specific location I’m happy to share in a private message, but I don’t want to be part of the reason that locals can’t be happy in their homes anymore. 

I think the best thing that we, as travel lovers, can do is simply to resist the temptation of visiting the kind of places that are only famous for looks. In reality, Castle Combe is one street. It has the Instagram-famous bridge at one end, and a pub at the other. A whole loop of the village would take maybe 5 minutes if it weren’t for the swarm of people. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from social media websites, but maybe take the time to research what’s around the famous location and visit nearby villages or attractions instead. And if you do visit any of these villages that have a cult following, please be respectful.

Love and Feathers, 
 The Owlet 💜 
You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest

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