How influencers justify jet-setting to Dubai in the midst of lockdown

Social media stars have always provided their followers with luxury escapism, should that change in a pandemic? 

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Two weeks ago, an article in the Guardian distilled what appeared to be the height of shamelessness around how some people are acting in the pandemic. As the UK was plunged into yet another national lockdown, it reported how influencers were enjoying luxurious getaways in Dubai, as well as other exotic locations, that they were branding as “business trips”. 

The piece looked at a variety of reality stars (mostly from the reality TV programme Love Island) as they shared vlogs and Instagram Stories featuring high-end hotels and tanning at the beach. It (unsurprisingly) went viral. As the attention on them increased, the social media stars in those locations have tried harder to prove that what they’re doing really is work; gratuitously posting views from their 20th floor rooms with captions such as “today’s office” and “not a bad place to Zoom”. 

But who are they trying to justify themselves too? The backlash from the public was widespread – and it’s understandable, with many people having not seen friends and family socially since March, let alone travelled abroad. But while their actions did gain criticism, the influencers' followers, for whom this kind of content is the norm, did not seem to care. In many cases, the escapsim was exactly why they followed them. 

Looking at the stats – not just since the January lockdown, but throughout the pandemic – influencers’ travel content tends to do better than their posts on other topics. Kaz Crossley, one of the Love Island stars currently in Dubai, gets 50k-60k likes per post on holiday versus nearly half that (roughly 30k likes) on posts she shares of herself in the UK. Another example is Molly Mae Hague – a Love Island 2019 runner-up who’s had one of the most successful careers since appearing on the show – who posts regularly to YouTube with makeup videos, vlogs, and clothing hauls. While her video stats vary, ranging anywhere between half a million and a million views, her travel vlogs in the pandemic have been some of her most successful ever. Her vlog from Crete this summer has 1.4 million views and a trip to Ibiza has a whopping 1.9 million; a trip to the Maldives in December has 1.3 million and – you guessed it – a vlog of her trip to Dubai that same month has 1.2 million.

While there are a number of reasons for why these videos might have such consistently high views (it could be hate-watching, or even people perversely drawn in after being shocked that these influencers were still travelling amid a gargantuan second Covid wave), the most likely one lies in what many of us have been doing since the pandemic began: trying to escape from our current reality by watching people enjoying life as it once was. 

Living vicariously through someone else’s more glamorous life is what draws so many people into following influencers in the first place. And in terms of the British reality stars currently in Dubai, their accounts have always been dedicated to excess, luxury and exclusivity. So why wouldn’t we expect the same in a pandemic? Why wouldn’t those audiences want to see more of a life they wish they could be living? While the contrast feels starker in lockdown than it may have felt before, the motivation remains the same – as does the result. For a moment, we forget about the last ten months. 

[See also: It has always been easy for social media firms to pull the plug on extremism]

This phenomenon explains why influencers keep travelling and why the perceived extreme backlash has little impact. But what followers see as harmless escapism has a cost when you consider the exploitative nature of the places these influencers are travelling to: almost exclusively areas with extreme economic disparity (Dubai, Mexico, the Greek islands), whose economies are largely driven by high-end resort culture (lest we forget ex-Love Island star Zara Holland was charged with a $12,000 fine after trying to flee Barbados to avoid an order to self-isolate after her boyfriend tested positive for coronavirus).

The moral dubiousness of travelling to Dubai is even more stark in the pandemic as there appears to be little to no mask-wearing particularly around service workers (in taxis, at shops). But  the ethics of visiting the emirate has always been morally questionable. Dubai in particular has a long-recorded history of migrant exploitation and the UAE is infamous for turning a blind eye to this abuse. In December 2018, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre published an article on why Dubai’s treatment of migrants made it a “questionable” tourist destination; a report from Human Rights Watch describes low-paid workers suffering from “unpaid wages, confinement to the house, workdays up to 21 hours with no breaks, to physical or sexual assault by employers...” all of which go unprotected under the UAE’s labour laws. 

Despite this highly-publicised, readily available evidence, influencers have chosen to flock to Dubai for years, and in doing so have helped give a platform to push its brand of modernity and opulence. As Rafia Zakaria wrote earlier this month about Dubai’s gilded appearance: “There are many takers for Dubai’s performance of modernity, gussied up as it is in the wrappings of unfettered abundance... Here they can play and buy and evade taxes and gather up goodies like never before.” And while more traditional celebrities and athletes have also been flocking to Dubai (13 players from Celtic FC were forced to self-isolate and miss a match after one tested positive on return from a warm-weather training camp based in the emirate), full-time influencers have played a major role in popularising the city as a destination for escape, sweeping away its obvious exploitation, so much so that travelling there has become an expected part of their influencer job. 

Ultimately, this kind of travel has become a cornerstone of the UK influencer industry. It is so widespread that many influencers, when met with criticism, appear sincerely dumbfounded. Earlier today, when pressed about her travel during lockdown in an appearance on This Morning, fitness Instagrammer Sheridan Mordew argued: “My job is to help people get fit and be motivational – whether it’s in the house or it’s in Dubai.” She did not appear to see what the problem was. Their fans reward them with engagement, and they benefit from a deluxe getaway  the pandemic hasn't changed that.

As of last week, after relative insulation from the virus, Dubai began to feel the effects of all its tourists: coronavirus cases there have started to spike. But this is unlikely to prove much of a deterrent for wealthy travellers: while a vaccine roll-out is already underway across the UAE, Dubai has become a destination for vaccine tourism, where the mega-rich are the first in line.

Whether it’s because of expectation, escapism, or simply an exhausted public running out of energy to care, influencers will continue to travel to Dubai with relatively few consequences. All that the pandemic has shown is how willing influencers and their audiences are to turn a blind eye. 

[See also: It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]

Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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