Social Media Impacts on Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites

HeritageForAll Initiative – Global Collaborations Program (2021)

By Ms. Anđela Šormaz* & Dr. Engelbert Ruoss**

* Product Design Consultant & Social Media Strategist at People Are Culture; Research Project Assistant at; Researcher & Project Assistant at UNESCO Chair USI; MA in International Tourism at USI Università della Svizzera Italiana; BA in Economics at Beogradska Bankarska Akademija (

** Lecturer of Tourism and World Heritage within the Master in International Tourism; Associated Expert of USI UNESCO Chair in ICT Sustainable Tourism in World Heritage Sites (

This presentation was for the students of USI Master in International Tourism – Module: World Heritage and Tourism – Faculty of Economics & Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society (sponsored by UNITWIN UNESCO Chair USI and USI Università della Svizzera Italiana). Lecture has been taken place online on Thursday 15 April 2021 in Lugano, Switzerland.


Today, we will talk about the interconnectedness between tourism, social media, and ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) as well as their impacts on natural and cultural heritage sites. Further, we will present case studies together with recommendations and conclusions provided to tourism organizations in analyzed areas and answer the question whether social media are growing opportunity or a threat for heritage destinations.

When we think about the connection between tourism, social media and ICTs, these are the photos we normally have in mind:

Certain destinations and spots become popular thanks to social media and marketing activities while others remain less-known. Daka destinations describes destinations that become popular due to the visits by people who want to show they have been there – and what a better way to do so but to publish the content in social media. Another term that arose from the increasing use of social media when traveling is instagrammable – colorful, attractive, and Insta-worthy spots and pictures. Here are examples of some of the popular tourism spots after easing the travel restrictions introduced as a response to the global pandemic – Covid-19 – which spread across the world in 2019/20:

This is to show that overtourism is not over. It is still relevant and important issue facing

And, what about social media? What are social media, what are the differences among social media platforms, what are social media telling us, how can we analyze them, how can we use the results?

Social media are websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. Visual communication is very important in social media. It evokes certain emotions while emotions – coming from travelers’ past experiences or those they expect/plan to be part of – are important drivers of their
future travel-related decision-making processes (Sormaz, 2020).

It is about the wealth of peer-to-peer interactions – marketing is a secondary activity. Further, travel inspiration sources are changing: from printed guidebooks to the posts in social media (which does not mean that offline sources are not relevant anymore).

For the case studies that will be presented today, we have chosen three interactive, experience-driven and travel-related platforms: Instagram, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb. Visual user experience is highly important on Instagram while its content is diverse (e.g. travel-, business-related, etc.). It has around one billion users, 70 % of the content is travel related, and 67% of travel enthusiasts use Instagram to discover new destinations.

TripAdvisor and Airbnb are commercial platforms offering travel information, products and services by private businesses and public. TripAdvisor is a go-to resource for travelers – 74% of travelers visit TripAdvisor prior to booking. The content on Airbnb is strongly user-generated derived from host-guest interactions.

Social Media and ICTs are Intertwined

ICTs are diverse set of technological tools and resources used to transmit, store, create, share or exchange information. These include mobile phones, computers, tablets, etc. Without ICTs the use of social media, as we know it today, would be impossible and without social media, the use of ICTs would be significantly lower.

Social Media in Traveler’s Journey

Our physical and digital worlds are tightly weaved into the so-called “digital world”. Traveler’s journey starts with inspiration and dreaming which takes place in social media, the second phase is planning – the traveler plans her/his trips using diverse social media platforms – after which she/he sets on a journey entering the third phase– on-trip experiences. The forth phase is post-trip memories when the traveler shares memories in social media and gets inspired to travel again.

The study aims at examining relevance of social media for tourism management and marketing communication, explaining their interconnectedness, and delivering solutions for tourism management in heritage areas and communication of heritage values using social media and ICTs.

Analysis of User-generated Content in Social Media

Differences among social media platforms require different methodological approaches:

Selected Case Studies

Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch (SAJA) UNESCO WHS is a natural World Heritage site situated in the Canton of Valais and Canton of Bern in Switzerland. It is a mountain formation with the rocky massif of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, and the glacial landscape (around the Aletsch Glacier). The site encompasses 23 municipalities with 35.000 inhabitants. The SAJA attracts 25 million visitors and 5 million overnights per year.

Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes (RhB) UNESCO WHS is a transboundary cultural World Heritage site situated in the Canton of Graubünden (Switzerland) and the Province of Sondrio (Italy). The WH perimeter encompasses the railway line running from Thesis via St.Moritz to Tirano with the total length of 130 km including its structures, institutions, and ecosystems. Along the railway, there are 19 Swiss and one Italian municipality with over 67.000 inhabitants, 11 million visitors and 3 million overnights per year.


Case Study I: Presence of the SAJA in Social Media

Visualization of the results – Presence of the SAJA in social media (analysis period: 19 March-4 April 2019 (Instagram and TripAdvisor); 30 June 2020 (Airbnb). Map image: Copyright © Esri and its licensors / Created by: Sormaz A.

Significant differences between social media presence of the northern and southern parts of the SAJA can be observed. The area with the highest presence is Jungfrau in the northern part while the least present is Raron-Niedergesteln in the southern part. The northern area is historically well-known for its tourism offerings. It is somewhat inhabited and is home to the High Alpine observatory – Jungfraujoch. Due to the easy access, international visitors are more present in the North compared to the other parts of the SAJA WH region. In the southern part, the presence of the spots overlooking the Aletsch Glacier and those around Bettmeralp overshadow other spots.

Case Study I: Monitoring Analysis of the SAJA

The percental increase of the total number of Instagram posts and TripAdvisor reviews can be interpreted as following:

  • despite the similar increase rate, significant differences among areas can still be observed and therefore, their positions remain the same after 12 months,
  • the popularity of the southern area is growing due to the social media strategies and plans developed and put into action by tourism responsible,
  • the number of visitors is increasing,
  • social media strategies and plans by tourism responsible in the northern area lack differentiation.

Case Study II: Presence of the RhB in Social Media

Visualization of the results – Presence of the RhB in social media (analysis period: 23-30 January 2020).
Map image: Copyright © Esri and its licensors / Created by: Sormaz A.

The area with the highest presence across the three analyzed social media platforms is the Upper Engadin – in particular, St. Moritz – followed by the Bernina area on Instagram and Pontresina and Tirano across all the three platforms. The least present are Thusis, Alvaschein and Stuls located in the northern part of the RhB WHS.

The central area – the Upper Engadin – is historically well-known and longer visited than the rest of the site. The area is inhabited and is home to popular events. Due to these facts, the easy access and crossing of RhB lines, international visitors are more present in the central part compared to the other parts. The southern part – Tirano – is a popular pilgrimage place which has a great impact on its social media presence – particularly, on TripAdvisor.

Recommendations Towards Balanced and Sustainable Tourism in Heritage Destinations

Some of the recommendations provided to tourism organizations responsible for tourism in the area of the SAJA and RhB are:

Social Media Action Planning (SMAP) which is story-led, community- and interaction centered and aims at supporting decision-making processes in destinations, creating a bidirectional communication among tourism actors, and balancing visitor flows within the destination. The SMAP comprises eight steps – from evaluation to monitoring:

The Social Media Action Planning scheme (Sormaz A. 2020)

GIS-based mobile application: The carrying capacity may differ within the territory (Ruoss and Sormaz 2020). A GIS-based mobile application can provide real-time information regarding visitor flows in the area and in case of the surpassed carrying capacity offer an alternative (e.g. less visited spots at the moment).

Feedback Tourism Economy is driven by the perception of tourism actors and creates continuous learning processes and opportunities for an improvement. It is developed on the idea of the feedback economy (i.e. using customer feedback to “empower future business decisions” (Business Reporter, n.d.; Forbes 2020)). The Feedback Tourism Economy incorporates the perspective of tourism actors relevant to the destination:

  • Local communities and individuals,
  • Visiting communities and individuals,
  • Site management,
  • Other tourism responsible (e.g. relevant public agencies and private enterprises on local, regional, international level),
  • Partners from science, communication and technology.
The feedback and interactions loop within the Feedback Tourism Economy (FTE) / Concept developed by: Sormaz A. (2020)

Social Media – a Growing Opportunity or a Threat for Heritage Destinations?

The way heritage destinations are interpreted in social media by heritage destination actors has a significant impact on visitor flows in these areas. Social media strategies and action plans can support site management and other tourism responsible in heritage destinations to:

  • be present in all the phases of traveler’s journey,
  • connect with potential and existing visitors,
  • bring the spirit of an area closer to the audiences,
  • analyze, monitor and manage visitor flows and behavior,
  • distinguish between overloaded and less-visited heritage areas and spots,
  • understand the evolution of impacts and changes (e.g. retirement of glaciers, deterioration and reconstruction of heritage ruins, positive and negative changes in the quality of tourism businesses and their products and services, etc.) – i.e. user generated content is a testimonial of a development,
  • understand heritage spots at risk and, if needed, to organize security staff accordingly,
  • communicate alternative spots to visit in periods of high pressure,
  • understand management and marketing activities within the area,
  • understand the development of hospitality services in the area – official an unofficial,
  • examine the way the heritage destination is perceived by visitors and other tourism actors,
  • raise awareness and respect towards heritage values and local communities,
  • educate about important issues facing heritage,
  • facilitate interactions and foster a cooperative commitment between site management and other relevant tourism actors, etc.

Heritage is not only about the past. It stands for the present and the future. It stands for people” Educate, Inspire, Engage – Ms. Anđela Šormaz



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