Influencers of the Maldives courts amid Covid-19

In lockdown season, Georgia Steel was preparing the jet.

A digital influencer and reality star, Ms Steel left England in late December for Dubai, where she promoted the lingerie on Instagram from a luxury hotel. In January, I was at a resort in the Maldives, where spa treatments include body wraps with sweet basil and coconut powder.

“We’ll be dripping,” Steel, 22, told her 1.6 million Instagram followers in a post that showed her wading through tropical waters in a bikini. It doesn’t matter that the number of Covid-19 cases in Britain and the Maldives was increasing, or that England had just announced its third shutdown.

The Maldives, an island nation off the coast of India, not only tolerates tourists like Steel, but urges them to visit. More than 300,000 have arrived since the country reopened its borders last summer, including several dozen influencers, social media stars with large followers who are often paid to sell products. Many influencers have been courted by the government and traveled on paid trips to exclusive resorts.

The government says its open-door strategy is ideal for a tourism-dependent country whose decentralized geography – around 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean – helps with social distancing. Since the borders were reopened, less than 1 percent of visitors who arrived have tested positive for the coronavirus, official data shows.

“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” said Thoyyib Mohamed, managing director of the country’s official public relations agency. “But for the moment, I have to say: this is a really good case study for everyone, especially tropical destinations.”

The Maldives’ strategy carries epidemiological risks and underscores how far-flung vacation spots and the influential people they court have become hotbeds of controversy.

As people from all over the world take refuge in one place, some influencers have posted about fleeing to small towns or foreign countries and encouraging their followers to do the same, putting locals and others with whom they come into contact in danger. their travels.

“So we are not in a pandemic, huh?” Beverly Cowell, a manager in England, commented on Ms Steel’s Instagram post, giving voice to many who see those travelers as shirking the rules.

Inviting influential people to visit during the pandemic runs the risk of damaging the image of a destination, said Francisco Femenia-Serra, a tourism expert at Nebrija University in Madrid who studies influencer marketing.

“What is wrong with the Maldives campaign is timing,” he said, noting that it began before travelers could be vaccinated. “It’s off. This is not the time to do that.”

When the Maldives closed its borders last March to protect itself against the virus, it did not make the decision lightly: Tourism employs more than 60,000 of the country’s 540,000 people, more than any other private sector industry, according to Nashiya Saeed, a consultant. in the Maldives, who recently co-wrote a government study on the economic impact of the pandemic.

“When tourism closed, no income came into the country,” Saeed said. Many workers laid off from the resorts living in the capital Malé were forced to return to their home islands because they could no longer afford it, he added.

As health authorities worked to contain local outbreaks, advisers to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih developed a strategy to revive tourism as quickly as possible. One advantage was that most of the country’s luxury resorts are on their own islands, making isolation and contact tracing much easier.

“We really planned this, we knew what our advantages were and we took advantage of them,” said Solih spokesman Mohamed Mabrook Azeez.

When the Maldives reopened in July, health officials demanded PCR tests, among other security protocols, but did not subject tourists to mandatory quarantines. Around the same time, the country’s public relations agency changed its international marketing campaign and urged travelers to “rediscover” the Maldives.

The government and local businesses also invited influential people to stay at the resorts and talk about them on social media. What did you do.

“When it’s cloudy, let the sun shine!” Ana Cheri, an American influencer with more than 12 million followers, wrote from a Maldives resort in November, a few weeks before her home state of California imposed far-reaching blackouts. “Splashing and swinging on the weekend!”

Ms. Cheri did not respond to multiple emails after initially agreeing to comment. A publicist for Ms Steel, star of the reality show “Love Island,” did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Even before the pandemic, influential people faced backlash when their travels caused an offense. Some of those who posted about travel to Saudi Arabia were criticized, for example, for the kingdom’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

England’s influential people, in particular, have faced criticism in recent weeks for defying lockdown rules that prohibit all but essential travel. Some defended their travels, saying that travel was essential to their work, while others apologized under public pressure.

“I was like, ‘Oh well, it’s legal, so it’s okay,'” said influencer KT Franklin in an apology video about her trip to the Maldives. “But it’s not good. He is really irresponsible, reckless and deaf ”.

In late January, Britain banned direct flights to and from Dubai in the UAE as the number of Covid-19 cases skyrocketed in both locations. The emirate’s lax immigration rules and perpetual sunshine had made it a popular spot for social media. But as the number of cases increased, officials closed bars and pubs for a month and limited hotels, shopping malls and beach clubs to 70 percent of capacity.

Officials in the Maldives, which have received nearly 150,000 tourists so far this year, said they had no plans to implement similar restrictions.

The country has reported nearly 20,000 total coronavirus infections, equivalent to about 4 percent of its population, and 60 deaths. But no resort group has sown widespread community transmission, and officials say the risk of that is low because some resort employees must self-quarantine if traveling between islands.

“All things considered, I think we’ve done well,” although some tourists tested positive before leaving the country, said Dr. Nazla Rafeeg, chief of communicable disease control at the government’s Health Protection Agency. “Our guidelines have resisted actual implementation.”

Many influencers and celebrities have faced the disgrace of other social media users who are stuck at home. Instagram accounts have sprung up to name and shame tourists who appear to be breaking the rules of social distancing and wearing masks abroad.

As a result, some influencers have refrained from posting travel content during the pandemic, or at least disabled comments on their posts, because they don’t want to stir controversy.

The pushback against traveling influencers is overblown, said Raidh Shaaz Waleed, whose company arranged for Steel, Cheri and more than 30 other influencers to visit the Maldives through a campaign called Project FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. None of the invited visitors, he said, tested positive for the coronavirus.

“If you think about safety guidelines, if you’re doing social distancing, you can still have fun,” he said.

Not everyone shares his optimism.

Ms Cowell, the manager in England who commented on Ms Steel’s post “We be drippin ‘” from the Maldives, said in emails that promoting such a trip during England’s third shutdown was irresponsible.

The post was particularly difficult to accept, he added, because it appeared the day he learned that his grandmother, who lives in a nursing home, had contracted the virus.

“This is not about canceling them or creating a negative environment online,” said Cowell, 22, of influencers who disobey lockdown rules, “but about making sure we don’t put celebrities on a pedestal where they are feel invincible and can do what they like “.

Taylor Lorenz contributed reporting.

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