In a lockdown season, Georgia Steel was a jet setting.
A digital influencer and reality TV star, Ms Steel left England at the end of December for Dubai, where she promoted lingerie on Instagram from a luxury hotel. In January, she was at a resort in the Maldives, where spa treatments include body wraps with sweet basil and coconut powder.
“We’re dripping,” Ms 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 on the rise, or that England had just announced its third lockdown.
The Maldives, an island nation off the coast of India, not only tolerates tourists like Ms Steel, but urges them to visit. More than 300,000 have arrived since the country reopened its borders last summer, including dozens of influencers, social media stars with numerous subscribers who are often paid to sell hawk products. Many influencers have been courted by the government and have 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 – contributes to social distancing. Since the borders reopened, far less than 1% of arriving visitors have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to official data.
“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” said Thoyyib Mohamed, director general of the country’s official public relations agency. “But for now, I have to say: this is a very good case study for the whole world, especially tropical destinations.”
The Maldives’ strategy carries epidemiological risks and underscores how remote vacation spots and the influencers they woo have become hot spots of controversy.
As people around the world take shelter in place, some influencers have posted articles about fleeing to small towns or foreign countries and encouraging their followers to do the same, potentially endangering locals and others with it. which they come into contact with during their travels.
“So we’re just not in a pandemic, are we?” Beverly Cowell, an administrator in England, commented on Ms Steel’s Instagram post, giving voice to many who believe these travelers are bending the rules.
Inviting influencers to visit during the pandemic risks damaging a destination’s image, said Francisco Femenia-Serra, a tourism expert at Nebrija University in Madrid who studies influencer marketing.
“What’s wrong with the Maldives campaign is the timing,” he said, noting that it started before travelers could be vaccinated. “He’s off. Now is not the time to do that.
When the Maldives closed its borders last March to guard 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 industry in the sector. private, according to Nashiya Saeed, a consultant in the Maldives who recently co-authored a government study on the economic impact of the pandemic.
“When tourism closed, no income entered the country,” Ms. Saeed said. Many laid-off resort workers who live in the capital, Malé, have been forced to return to their home islands because they could no longer afford it, she added.
As health authorities scrambled to contain local epidemics, advisers to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih devised a strategy to restart tourism as quickly as possible. One of the perks 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 played with them,” said Solih spokesman Mohamed Mabrook Azeez.
When the Maldives reopened in July, health authorities demanded PCR testing, among other safety 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.
Government and local businesses have also invited influencers to stay at resorts and talk about it on social media. What they did.
“When it’s cloudy, be the sun! Ana Cheri, an American influencer with more than 12 million followers, wrote from a resort in the Maldives in November, weeks before her home state of California imposed large-scale blockages. “Splash and swing in the weekend!”
Ms Cheri did not respond to multiple emails after initially agreeing to comment. A publicist for Ms Steel, a star of the “Love Island” reality show, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Even before the pandemic, influencers suffered backlash when their travels offended. Some of those who posted on the trips to Saudi Arabia have been criticized, for example, because of the kingdom’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Influencers from England, in particular, have come under fire in recent weeks for defying lockdown rules that ban all but essential travel. Some have defended their travel, saying travel is essential to their jobs, while others have apologized under pressure from the public.
“I was like, ‘Oh, well, it’s legal, so it’s okay,’” influencer KT Franklin said in an apology video about her trip to the Maldives. “But that’s not good. It is truly irresponsible, reckless and deaf.
Britain banned direct flights to and from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at the end of January as the number of Covid-19 cases skyrocketed in both places. The emirate’s lax immigration rules and perpetual sun had made it a popular spot for social media. But as the number of cases increased, authorities shut down bars and pubs for a month and limited hotels, malls and beach clubs to 70% of their capacity.
Authorities in the Maldives, which have welcomed nearly 150,000 tourists so far this year, have said they have no plans to put similar restrictions in place.
The coronavirus pandemic: what you need to know
The country has reported nearly 20,000 coronavirus infections in total, or about 4% of its population, and 60 deaths. But no resort cluster has sown widespread community transmission, and officials say the risk is low as some resort workers are required to self-quarantine if they travel between islands.
“Overall, I think we have done well,” although some tourists have tested positive before leaving the country, said Dr Nazla Rafeeg, communicable disease control officer at the government protection agency. health. “Our guidelines have withstood actual implementation. “
Many influencers and celebrities have faced the stigma of other social media users who are stuck in their homes. Instagram accounts have sprung up to name and shame tourists who appear to be breaking social distancing and mask-wearing rules abroad.
As a result, some influencers have refrained from posting travel content during the pandemic – or at least have disabled comments on their posts – because they don’t want to cause controversy.
The backlash against roaming influencers is overestimated, said Raidh Shaaz Waleed, whose company arranged for Ms Steel, Ms Cheri and more than 30 other influencers to visit the Maldives as part of a campaign called Project FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. None of the invited visitors, he said, tested positive for the coronavirus.
“If you pay attention to safety guidelines, if you respect social distancing, you can still have fun,” he said.
Not everyone shares his optimism.
Ms Cowell, the administrator in England who commented on Ms Steel’s’ We be drippin ” post from the Maldives, said in emails that promoting such a trip during England’s third lockdown was irresponsible.
The post was particularly tough to take, she added, as it emerged the day she learned that her grandmother, who lives in a nursing home, had contracted the virus.
“It’s not about canceling them or creating a negative environment online,” Ms. Cowell, 22, said of influencers flouting foreclosure rules, “but making sure we don’t put celebrities on a pedestal where they feel invincible and they can do whatever they want.
Taylor Lorenz contributed reporting.