TikTok has more than one billion users. Posts can swiftly clock up tens, or hundreds, of thousands of views and the platform has proved a popular place on which to share recommendations of what to do, see and eat in tourist destinations. This has brought a surge in customers to a collection of small food businesses in Europe’s visitor hotspots: in at least one instance, a security was hired to cope with the queues.
Kim Innes, founder of Humble Crumble, which is based in Old Spitalfields Market and Borough Market in London, says that popularity gained through the platform can have its downsides.
“We have struggled in the past with large queues with customers and other traders being frustrated,” she says.
The business has courted TikTok users, however, by regularly posting videos of its creations of ice cream with various toppings. It has gained more than 61,000 TikTok followers.
But TikTok fame is not always welcome, at least not when it becomes overwhelming. The owners of Parisian wine bar and ice cream parlour Folderol told The New York Times they had been forced to take measures, including hiring a bouncer putting up signs saying: “No TikTok”, after they were inundated with visitors.
Dr Lauren A Siegel, senior lecturer in Tourism and Events at the University Of Greenwich, explains that social media can encourage a myopic kind of travel.
She says: “Social media-induced tourists are driven to visit very specific sites that they’ve seen or learned about from their online connections [including influencers].
“This phenomenon perpetuates a unique cycle in which they will travel to the same places they’ve seen online, take the same types of [template, or copycat] photos or videos of themselves there and then post them online for others to see and thus continue the cycle.”
The negative impact of this cycle has been Amsterdam, which is among the European cities worst affected by overtourism (it has around 920,000 residents, but recorded 15.7 million overnight stays in 2022).
A clutch of businesses in the city have had difficulties coping with the sudden queues that are, at least in part, sparked by social media interest. Take Fabel Friet, a business serving Dutch fries. The downsides of its online popularity have been reported on by the NL Times and The Guardian and have led its proprietors to put out a sign asking customers to “kindly respect our neighbours by not eating in front of their houses”.
Eva Plijter, a spokesperson for one district of Amsterdam, told i: “We stay in close contact with the businesses who are dealing [with a spike in customers] – it is up to the businesses to make sure public space isn’t overcrowded”.
In some cases, businesses have had to ask staff members to oversee queues or clean up their customers’ litter.
Despite the antisocial behaviour of some social-media influenced tourists, TikTok’s travel content has an engaged audience, which many businesses are keen to tap into.
Among the TikTok users who regularly watch its travel-related posts is PR consultant Rebecca Rhodes. She recently used TikTok to plan a trip to Lisbon. The platform helped her find the Dear Breakfast café, brunch venue Augusto, and a restaurant called Da Noi.
“I booked dinner based on recommendations I found, had some amazing brunches and drinks at several rooftop bars, all thanks to TikTok,” she says.
Emma Cooke, a travel writer and TikTok creator with nearly 383,000 followers on the site, frequently posts videos recommending places to eat, often in London. With a background in journalism, she was trained to make sure businesses were aware of the impact that a piece of coverage can have.
“I try to follow that now, where if I want to cover a place on TikTok I’ll usually email in advance to ask for permission.
“That said, TikTok is a lot more off the cuff and casual [than a newspaper or news site], so I also cover things that I just happen to be doing, but realise would make a really good video – in that case, I try to be very upfront about what I’m doing when I’m there.”
Indeed, even businesses who’ve experienced the downsides to social media popularity do, in some cases, see a positive impact overall.
Julien Garrec, from Lisbon’s Dear Breakfast, found himself in the TikTok limelight thanks to someone’s video of their breakfast and now gets regular requests for that specific table on the first floor. He admits that if people are coming in the hope they can recreate a certain view, or try something they’ve seen hyped online.
Meanwhile, Innes of Humble Crumble explains how her team has coped following a viral video that was a “game-changer” for her cafe in October 2020.
“We have worked hard to reduce our waiting time by improving our ordering process, improving the efficiency of our kitchen and by reducing our crumble assembly time,” she says.
“Now we still have large queues, but they move quickly.”
At Bunsik, another London food outlet, which sells Korean Street Food and corn dogs, founder Jae Cho says: “At times, [popularity on] TikTok has led to a high volume of customers, resulting in challenges in managing queues and potential impacts on our neighbours.”
But, he adds: “We’re pleased to note that some of our neighbouring businesses have seen an increase in customers due to the popularity of Bunsik.”
That said, those who live in tourist hotspots might prefer visitors to be more spread out across the city.
In Amsterdam, Plijter says they would like to see more of a balance of visitors, including people who are interested in the city for its architecture, art and way of living – and who respect the people who live there.
Indeed, Dr Siegel says that downsides of social-media-centred tourism are “more superficial interactions while visiting (and little to no engagement with local culture or peoples)”.
“Oftentimes the crowding and congestion that accompanies social media-driven tourists can significantly overwhelm the destination, especially in more residential areas that are not prepared or accustomed to tourism.”