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Instagram vs Reality: Travel influencers gloss over coronavirus

In the time of coronavirus, to log in to Twitter or Facebook is to be bombarded with posts about infection rates, hand sanitizer and social distancing. Airlines are dropping flights, countries are tightening borders, and concerts and conferences have been canceled. But there’s one place where it’s possible to escape the outbreak: Instagram.

On Instagram, the Facebook Inc.-owned photo-sharing app, many high-profile users still seem to be on vacation. Travel influencers — the app’s famous authorities on the most ’grammable sunsets and resorts — are continuing their posts unabated. “We see it as our role to help support tourism during these tough times,” said Kate Torpy and Olly Neville, the couple behind @KOTravellers. Their most recent dispatches, posted to their 342,000 followers, showcase idyllic weather and suntans in Fiji, the Maldives and Japan. None mentions the virus, or the havoc it’s wreaking on international travel and commerce.

Instagram initially rose to popularity because it offered filters that made smartphone-camera snaps more striking, giving any user the ability to share polished, professional-looking shots. From there, it evolved into a platform where the best-performing posts are those that provide optimism and inspiration — often intentionally at odds with real life.  The app now hosts thousands of attractive jetsetters who make their money from tourism boards, hotel groups, clothing brands and sunscreen companies, which offer payment or discounts in exchange for posting about their destinations. The influencers are selling escapism, and right now their feeds are the ultimate example of #InstagramVsReality: even if they’re not talking about it publicly, they’re feeling the uncertainty, too, like everyone else in the economy.

A post shared by TRAVEL IN HER SHOES (@aggie) on Mar 8, 2020 at 8:31am PDT

Aggie Lal, a 32-year-old with 845,000 followers on Instagram and her own swimwear line, is always the first to encourage people to travel somewhere they’re afraid of. She got deals to go to Hawaii during its volcano eruption, to Puerto Rico during its earthquake recovery, to the Dominican Republic after a spate of tourist deaths, and to Saudi Arabia in the midst of global backlash for a journalist’s murder.

When she got a call from the public-relations firm booking her March trip to Thailand, Lal expected reassurance in light of dozens of Covid-19 cases in that country. Instead, she heard tears on the other line. “The representative was telling me, ‘We’re closed. There’s nobody here. We don’t want you to come. It’s a ghost town,’” Lal remembers. There was no positive story for her to tell. Still, Lal’s livelihood and branding require content, and so she continues to tell a travel story, using old colorful photos from celebrating Holi in India on one day, and a slideshow of women she’s met throughout her travels for International Women’s Day.

In step with the rise of Instagram, which has more than 1 billion users around the world, the consumer economy has been rewired to cater to millennials who prefer saving up for photographable experiences, like vacations and concerts, instead of material items like cars. Spending on experiences has been growing four times faster annually than spending on goods, according to McKinsey & Co. This year was supposed to continue the boom. The global airline industry was projected to hit an 11th straight year of record flights performed, at 40.3 billion in 2020. Travel spending was forecast to increase 4%, according to the U.S. Travel Forecast. But coronavirus has changed all that. On other platforms, travellers are posting photos of empty planes, cities with no traffic, landmarks with no crowds. Airlines are reducing flights and pulling their revenue forecasts while companies are banning non-essential travel. And influencers have to grapple with whether they still feel right about encouraging their followers to travel, despite the risk. 

On Wednesday, Lal addressed coronavirus on Instagram for the first time, with a photo of a quote from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi series “Dune”: “I must not fear/fear is the mind-killer/fear is the little-death.” She encouraged her followers to remain calm, saying the tranquility would be better for their immune systems. 

Many influencers also fear for the economies of the places where they can no longer travel. Popular destinations that are closed for health and safety reasons, like Shanghai Disney and the Louvre museum in Paris, will eventually recover. Many other places are at risk.

“A lot of small businesses and boutique companies really depend on tourism for their revenue,” said Li-Chi Pan, who has 508,000 Instagram followers and spoke after checking into a luxury hotel in Paris. At the hotel’s aperitif bar, other travelers made racist remarks about her Asian looks. Then she learned that an upcoming trip, sponsored by a fragrance company, was canceled at the last minute.

A post shared by L I C H I ▴ P A N ???? (@lichipan) on Mar 8, 2020 at 5:03am PDT

On her feed, she posted glamorous photos and videos of her Parisian experience: fashion week in partnership with luxury brands Hermes and Valentino, crepes with chocolate and ice cream, the Eiffel Tower at night, rain on an umbrella. As of Wednesday, France had 2,281 cases and 48 deaths. “A lot of my followers have been messaging me to say, ‘are you safe?’” she said. “My parents are quite stressed.” Pan plans to go home to South Africa next.

Johannes Richter, who creates romantic scenes with his wife, Vivian Velle, on @jovi_travel for their 307,000 followers, was planning to go to one of the world’s biggest travel trade shows, ITB Berlin, from March 4 to March 8. The couple had planned 20 meetings with tourism boards and agencies. But the conference was canceled, citing the dangers of gathering there after 150 known German coronavirus cases (the country now has more than 1,500). Richter and Velle will take their next trip for winter photos in the Alps, but will be avoiding the Italian side; they won’t be booking a future trip, to the Maldives, unless their travel insurance will reimburse for a cancellation. For now, their feed is featuring older photos of feeding giraffes in Namibia back in December.

Alex Waltner, who goes by @swedishnomad and has 161,000 followers, has been posting from New York City, visiting the Brooklyn Bridge and the Top of the Rock, with plans to go to Europe next. He recently canceled a trip to Venice, saying he wasn’t afraid of the disease, but of the possibility of quarantine. Still, he’s not worried long-term.

“There will be a huge boost in travel bookings as soon as everything calms down,” Waltner said. When that happens, “it might go the other way around and result in more money spent on advertising, especially on travel influencers, to show that it’s safe.” In the Instagram-fueled economy, where the influencers go, so will their followers.


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