The drone - a symbol of heavy-handed self-centred tourism - Rusty Compass travel blog

The drone - a symbol of heavy-handed self-centred tourism

| 21 Nov 2018
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21 Nov 2018

The drone has arrived. These high-impact flying machines are coming to a beautiful place near you. The drone has transitioned from professional videography gadget to must-have consumer gadget for the social media age.

A few weeks ago I was walking along the heritage listed streets of Hoi An, Vietnam’s old merchant town. One of the best things about Hoi An is that its well preserved streets of mainly Chinese and French colonial buildings are free of motorised vehicles for large parts the day. I was to discover though, that drones are not classed as motorised vehicles. With hundreds of other travellers, I was accompanied along the Thu Bon riverfront by a drone - often at close range.

I've had similar encounters in VIetnam's Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park and on Sydney Harbour.

If you’re in a beautiful place, it seems there’s a fair chance someone will view it as a good place to launch a drone.

Yes, drones capture amazing images. Drone generated travel footage is clogging up my Facebook feed - it’s compelling stuff. But drone footage usually comes at a high cost to other people - be they locals or travellers. In some cases, like the heartrending recent viral footage of a bear cub climbing a slippery snowy mountain, it's the natural world that pays the price. The drone is the perfect symbol of high impact, self absorbed, travel.

Drones of Hoi An
Photo: Mark Bowyer Drones of Hoi An
Phong Nha sunset before the drone arrived
Photo: Mark Bowyer Phong Nha sunset before the drone arrived
Better to be looking up at their world than down on it - Watermelon ladies - Phong Nha
Photo: Mark Bowyer Better to be looking up at their world than down on it - Watermelon ladies - Phong Nha


In Hoi An, I first noticed the drone as I was taking a shot across the river to the old town (with the drone in it). The droner (the owner of a drone) seemed comfortable with the idea that his craft obstructed the views of hundreds of travellers trying to capture their own shot of the old town.

Minutes later, as I walked along the river, the drone was back, hovering way too close to me and hundreds of others enjoying our hit of Hoi An’s superb late afternoon light (see photo). It was invasive, it was noisy and it was appallingly inconsiderate. And I also wondered what would happen if there were two, three, four or more people who wanted to launch drones over that scene?

I’m not saying there is no place for drones. They have professional uses. But in public places, their use should be strictly professional and managed.

In Vietnam, I understand the rules below govern drone use (I couldn’t find anything that looked official, but these conditions were listed on drone websites) -.

You must first apply for and receive a permit to operate a drone in Vietnam.
Do not fly your drone over people or large crowds
Respect others privacy when flying your drone
Do not fly your drone over airports or in areas where aircraft are operating
You must fly during daylight hours and only fly in good weather conditions
Do not fly your drone in sensitive areas including government or military facilities. Use of drones or camera drones in these areas are prohibited.

I didn’t see a requirement that other people’s enjoyment of beautiful, serene places should be respected.

My catalogue of drone groans doesn’t even contemplate the violations of privacy, security and safety that accompany flying small aircraft around people and places. They’re not trivial considerations. I’ve had several professional droners tell me recently how their drones went AWOL and were lost forever - presumably crashing to the ground somewhere. And what of the countless malevolent uses for drones?

It’s strange in a global environment of paranoia about nearly everything - especially security - that drones have been given a free pass in many instances.

I have never seen a place that didn't look good from a drone - which explains their appeal. They capture beauty - but their images are usually divorced from the reality of what's on the ground.

Treading lightly has long been one of the best values of travel. And travel is best when you are among people and places - not above them. The detail on the ground is more beautiful, textured and important than the grand sweep from the air.

Rusty Compass will stay firmly placed on the ground for now. And I won’t be unhappy to see drones disappear as a consumer travel accessory.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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