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Maldivian courts are influential among Covid-19

In the blockade season, Georgia Steel was reactive.

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

“We’re going to drip,” Ms. Steele, 22, told her 1.6 million followers on Instagram in a post showing her walking in tropical waters in a bikini. Remember that Covid-19 cases in Britain and the Maldives are escalating, or that England has just announced its third blockade.

The Maldives, an island nation off the coast of India, not only tolerates tourists like Ms. Steele, but encourages them to visit. More than 300,000 have arrived since the country opened its borders last summer, including dozens of influential social media stars with big followers who are often paid for hawk products. Many influencers are courted by the government and travel with paid junk to exclusive resorts.

The government says its open-door strategy is ideal for a tourism-dependent country whose decentralized geography – about 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean – helps socially distance itself. Since the borders opened, less than 1% of arriving visitors have been tested for coronavirus, official figures show.

“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” said Toib Mohammed, managing director of the country’s official public relations agency. “But for now, I have to say, ‘This is a really good case for the whole world, especially for tropical destinations.’

The Maldives’ strategy comes with epidemiological risks and underscores how many remote holiday destinations and influential people who have courted have become flames of controversy.

As people around the world take refuge on the spot, some influencers publish opinions about fleeing to small towns or foreign countries and encourage their followers to do the same, potentially endangering locals and others they come in contact with during their travels.

“So we’re just not in a pandemic, are we?” Beverly Cowell, an administrator in England, commented on Ms. Steele’s Instagram post, giving voice to many who believe such passengers are circumventing the rules.

Inviting influencers to visit it during a pandemic risks damaging the destination’s image, said Francisco Femenia-Serra, a tourism expert at the University of Nebria in Madrid who is studying influence marketing.

“What is wrong with the Maldives campaign is the weather,” he said, noting that it began before passengers could be vaccinated. “It’s out of the question. This is not the time to do that.” “

When the Maldives closed its borders in March to protect itself from the virus, it did not take 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 Our Said, a consultant to the Maldives who recently co-authored a government study on the economic impact of the pandemic.

“When tourism stopped, there was no income in the country,” Ms Saeed said. Many laid-off resort workers living in the capital, Male, have been forced to relocate to their home islands because they could no longer afford it, she added.

As health authorities work to control outbreaks locally, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s advisers have developed a strategy to restart tourism as soon as possible. One of the advantages was that most luxury resorts in the country are on their own islands, which makes isolation and tracking of contacts much easier.

“We really planned this, we knew what our advantages were and we played with them,” said Mr Solih’s spokesman Mohamed Mabrook Aziz.

When the Maldives opened in July, health officials demanded PCR tests, 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 called on passengers to “rediscover” the Maldives.

The government and local businesses have also invited influential people to stay at the resorts and socialize on social media. Which they did.

“When it’s cloudy, be sunny!” Anna Cherry, an American influencer with more than 12 million followers, wrote from a Maldives resort in November, weeks before her home state of California imposed widespread blockades. “Spraying and rocking over the weekend!”

Ms. Cherry did not respond to several emails after initially agreeing to comment. A publicist for Ms. Steel, a star on the reality show Love Island, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Even before the pandemic, influencers faced feedback when their travels offended them. Some who posted about a trip to Saudi Arabia were criticized, for example, for the kingdom’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Hashoghi.

In particular, English influencers have been criticized in recent weeks for opposing blocking rules that ban all travel except the essential ones. Some defended their travels, saying travel was essential to their work, while others apologized under public pressure.

“I was like, ‘Oh, well, it’s legal, so it’s good,'” said the influential K.T. Franklin in a video apologizing for his trip to the Maldives. “But it’s not good. He is truly irresponsible, reckless and deaf. “

In late January, Britain banned direct flights to and from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, as the Covid-19 case jumped in both places. The emirate’s weak immigration rules and the eternal sun had made it a popular place on social media. But as the number of cases increased, employees closed bars and pubs for a month and limited hotels, malls and beach clubs to 70 percent capacity.

Maldives officials, who have so far welcomed nearly 150,000 tourists so far, have said they have no plans to impose such restrictions.

The country has reported nearly 20,000 total coronavirus infections, or about 4 percent of its population, and 60 deaths. But no resort cluster has become widespread in the community, and officials say the risk is low, as some resort employees have to be quarantined if they travel between islands.

“Overall, I think we managed to do it well,” although some tourists were positive before leaving the country, said Dr. Nazla Rafig, head of communicable disease control at the government’s health agency. “Our guidelines were opposed to actual implementation.”

Many influencers and celebrities face the hatred of other social media users who have stayed at home. Instagram accounts have appeared to name and embarrass tourists who appear to violate the rules of social distancing and wearing masks while abroad.

As a result, some influencers have refrained from publishing travel content during the pandemic – or at least have disabled comments on their posts – because they do not want to court disputes.

The retaliation against traveling influential people is exaggerated, said Reid Shaaz Wilde, whose company arranged for Ms. Steele, Ms. Cherry and more than 30 other influential people to visit the Maldives through a campaign called Project FOMO, or Fear of Disappearance. According to him, none of the invited visitors was positive for coronavirus.

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

Not everyone shares his optimism.

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

The post was particularly difficult to take, she added, as she appeared the day she learned that her grandmother, who lived in a nursing home, had contracted the virus.

“It’s not about undoing them or creating a negative online environment,” said Ms. Cowell, 22, of influential people who break blocking rules, “but making sure we don’t put celebrities on a pedestal where they they feel invincible and can do what they like. “

Taylor Lorenz contributed to the reporting.

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