Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Myanmar grows on Instagram

Myanmar’s recent transition from junta to democracy has changed many aspects of the way the world sees The Golden Land – even on Instagram.

Yangon Central Railway station offers a chaotic look at life in Myanmar. Photos: SuppliedYangon Central Railway station offers a chaotic look at life in Myanmar. Photos: Supplied

Recent posts on the popular social media app from widely followed accounts such as National Geographic photographer Ira Block and online travel start-up Passion Passport highlight the shift from little-known destination to sought-after travel destination.

Block, who visited Myanmar in February on a personal visit, has posted 16 photos to his following of more than 238,000 users, documenting the ongoings of a nation many outsiders view as completely foreign. He spoke at Myanmar Deitta gallery on February 3 and identified Myanmar photographers as a key aspect of the country’s exposure.

“I am very impressed with what they are doing,” he said. “They are very good photographers, and they are working to be better photographers.”

And its not just local photographers showing off Southeast Asia’s largest country – Zach Glassman, who founded Passion Passport in 2013 as a community travel site, took a group of four competition-winners to Yangon in February. He said part of the reason the country has grown so popular on social media is its sense of “new-ness”.

This photo has the more popular tag #vietnam. Photo - Facebook/ PassionPassportThis photo has the more popular tag #vietnam. Photo - Facebook/ PassionPassport

“There’s a certain level of untouched-ness that is so appealing to a curious traveller,” Glassman said. “There’s also something so fascinating about the fact that one couldn’t visit Myanmar up until more recently. So a lot of the images that are coming out of Myanmar are images that we wouldn’t have seen 15 or 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t grow up knowing what that place looked like.”

During their trip and in the two weeks since, Glassman has posted eight photos or videos of Yangon to his nearly 300,000 followers, averaging more than 3600 likes per post. One video shows clips of life on the circle train, an aspect of Yangon that particularly interested him and his fellow travellers.

“A lot of our time in Yangon revolved around getting on the circle train as much as possible,” he said. “Each day always started with that. One of the nicest parts for me was just kind of watching them on the circle train, them talking to locals. These conversations were just happening organically.”

As part of Passion Passport’s mission, the four creative professionals Glassman took to Yangon were encouraged to transform their experiences into tangible media. Jonathon Collins, a photographer, posted five photos of Yangon to his following of 13,700; Wesley Verhoeve, a photographer/writer, also posted five photos, which reached 33,400 Instagram users; and Pei Ketron, an acclaimed speaker and photographer, posted nine photos to her following of more than 862,000.

Though their trip was funded by Cathay Pacific Airways – brand partnerships are the primary cash source of Passion Passport’s trips – the photographs and stories created by the travellers contribute to the locations they visit themselves. Most obviously, they inspire others to visit the countries pictured.

“Photography and videography on social media, I think, has instilled a sense of ‘hey, I can do that too!’” Glassman said. “I think the destinations people know less about, places like Myanmar that carry more mystique … they’re put up on more of a pedestal.”

The #myanmar tag has generated 882,047 posts on Instagram, still far behind #thailand (27,133,923 posts) or #vietnam (5,243,915 posts). But as tourism expectations grow from the 5 million person target of 2015 to an expected 7.5 million per year by 2020, the exposure will also increase.

The growing desire to experience Myanmar was evidenced by Passion Passport’s #PassporttoAsia application: of the four cities available to visit, Yangon proved to be the most sought-after.

“There’s a fundamental shift going on right now, away from people wanting things and toward people wanting new experiences,” he said.