A digital influencer and reality television star, Steel left England in late December for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where she promoted lingerie on Instagram from a luxury hotel. By January, she was at a resort in the Maldives, where spa treatments include body wraps with sweet basil and coconut powder.
“We be drippin’,” Steel, 22, told her 1.6 million Instagram followers in a post that showed her wading through tropical waters in a bikini. Never mind that COVID-19 caseloads in Britain and the Maldives were escalating or that England had just announced its third lockdown.
The Maldives, an island nation off the coast of India, is not only tolerating tourists like Steel but also urging 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 followings who are often paid to hawk products. Many influencers have been courted by the government and traveled on paid junkets to exclusive resorts.
The government says its open-door strategy is ideal for a tourism-dependent country whose decentralised geography — about 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean — helps with social distancing. Since the borders reopened, well under 1 percent of arriving visitors have tested positive for the coronavirus, official data show.
“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” said Thoyyib Mohamed, managing director of the country’s official public relations agency. “But for the time being, I must say, this is a really good case study for the entire world, especially tropical destinations.”
The Maldives’ strategy comes with public health risks and underscores how far-flung vacation spots and the influencers they court have become flashpoints for controversy.
As people around the world shelter in place, some influencers have posted about fleeing to small towns or foreign countries and encouraging their followers to do the same, potentially endangering locals and others with whom they come in contact on their travels.
“So we’re just not in a pandemic huh?” Beverly Cowell, an administrator in England, commented on Steel’s Instagram post, giving voice to many who see such travelers as skirting 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. “It’s off. It’s not the moment to do that.”
When the Maldives shut 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 private sector, according to Nashiya Saeed, a consultant in the Maldives who recently co-wrote a government study on the pandemic’s economic impact.
“When tourism shut down, there was no revenue coming into the country,” Saeed said. Many laid-off resort workers who live in the capital, Malé, were forced to moved back to their home islands because they could no longer afford it, she added.
As health authorities worked to contain local outbreaks, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s advisers developed a strategy for restarting 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 out, we knew what our advantages were, and we played to them,” said Solih’s spokesperson, Mohamed Mabrook Azeez.
When the Maldives reopened in July, health officials required PCR tests, among other safety protocols, but did not subject tourists to mandatory quarantines. Around the same time, the country’s public relations agency switched its international marketing campaign and urged travelers to “rediscover” the Maldives.
The government and local businesses also invited influencers to stay at resorts and gush about them on social media. Which they did.
“When it’s cloudy be the sunshine!” 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 lockdowns. “Splashing and swinging into the weekend!”
Cheri did not respond to several emails after initially agreeing to comment. A publicist for Steel, a star on the reality show “Love Island,” did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Even before the pandemic, influencers faced backlashes when their trips caused offense. Some who posted about traveling in Saudi Arabia were criticized, for instance, because of the kingdom’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Influencers from England in particular have faced criticism in recent weeks for defying lockdown rules that ban all but essential travel. Some defended their trips, saying that traveling was essential to their work, while others apologized under public pressure.
“I was like, ‘Oh, well, it’s legal, so it’s fine,’” influencer KT Franklin said in an apology video about her trip to the Maldives. “But it’s not fine. It’s really irresponsible and reckless and tone-deaf.”
In late January, Britain banned direct flights to and from Dubai as the COVID-19 caseload soared in both places. Its lax immigration rules and perpetual sunshine had made it a popular spot for the social media set. But as case numbers rose, officials closed bars and pubs for a month and limited hotels, malls and beach clubs to 70 percent capacity.
Officials in the Maldives, which has welcomed nearly 150,000 tourists so far this year, said they had no plans to roll out 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 clusters have seeded widespread community transmission, and officials say the risk of that is low because some resort employees are required to quarantine if they travel between islands.
A beach on the island of Kandooma in the Maldives, Feb 12, 2017. By urging travelers to visit, the Maldives is reviving its luxury resorts. It’s also risking new outbreaks and courting controversy on social media. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
Many influencers and celebrities have faced the opprobrium 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 social distancing and mask-wearing rules while 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 do not want to court controversy.
The blowback against traveling influencers is overstated, 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 are thoughtful about the safety guidelines, if you’re doing the social distancing, you can still have fun,” he said.
Not everyone shares his optimism.
Cowell, the administrator in England who commented on 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 hard to take, she added, because it appeared on 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,” Cowell, 22, said of influencers who flout lockdown rules, “but making sure that we don’t put celebrities on a pedestal where they feel invincible and they can do what they like.”
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