Earlier this year, Steve Manos was facing his biggest crisis yet as mayor of Lake Elsinore, California: an explosion of picture-perfect poppies--known as the super bloom--in the Temescal Mountains, just northwest of the center of town.
The problem wasn't the flam-orange poppies themselves, the most vibrant Manos had seen in his 32 years living there. It was the hordes of smartphone-carrying visitors coming to take photos, bringing with them intense traffic and occasionally horrible etiquette when they wandered off the trail to pose with, trample, or pick the poppies.
An ad from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, draws attention to the potential dangers of geo-tagging. Over St. Patrick's Day weekend alone, I as many as 100,000 poppy-hunting people crowded into town.
"We've never had 50,000 or 100,000 in this city all at one time," Manos says. "The city's not advertising this. It's not an event, and for those reasons it's really hard to plan for anything like that."
A few weeks earlier, some social media influencers had taken pictures with the first blooms. Many of their posts included geotags, which show precisely where photos are taken. And that, Manos says, is what led to the visitor boom.
Lake Elsinore officials aren't the only ones concerned about how social media is driving up tourism. Public lands all over the country are growing increasingly crowded as people seeking iconic selfies flock to the breathtaking areas they've seen on Instagram.
In Arizona, for example, the Horseshoe Bend overlook, which offers a scenic view of a canyon, has gone from something of a local secret to #instafamous. Roughly 2 million people now visit each year, compared with just a few thousand as recently as five years ago.
At many parks, bigger crowds tend to bring out those who are less experienced or prepared--and they often leave trash, cause traffic jams, and damage the environment when they wander off trails. Some places have also noticed an increase in medical emergencies. And while the number of visitors has gone up, park budgets and staff numbers have generally stayed the same, making it difficult for officials to handle the larger groups.
That's why last November, the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board in Wyoming asked visitors to stop geotagging photographs on social media in an effort to protect the state's pristine forests and remote lakes. They say that by sharing a precise location on Instagram, users put fragile ecosystems and wild...