When the pandemic hit last spring, popular travel and food YouTuber Mark Wiens was relatively lucky: He had recently returned home to Thailand, narrowly avoiding being stuck abroad when the country locked down. In other ways, he wasn’t so lucky.
“Before the pandemic, I was traveling at least about 70 percent of the time,” he says. But COVID forced him to re-evaluate his YouTube strategy, which had previously featured his family’s eating adventures all over the world. He initially focused his videos on Bangkok street food, as inter-provincial travel within the country was discouraged. Once it was easier to travel across the country, however, “we did a lot of road trips, and really focused on some of the lesser known destinations of Thailand.” But his audience’s attention became harder for him to capture, as they were accustomed to his international adventures, not his neighborhood explorations.
Tourism and travel tanked in 2020, obviously, and the industry is still struggling. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, a trade group that conducts research and lobbies internationally, the industry directly and indirectly accounts for over 10 percent of all jobs globally, and generates 10.4 percent of global GDP. But in 2020, the industry’s contribution to global GDP was halved, and 18.5 percent of people working in the sector lost their jobs.
Influencers are a minority of this population, but the pandemic’s impact on their lives has been significant. “I basically had to shift all my big, long-term goals back two years,” says Sam Elizabeth, a travel influencer who’s been based in Vietnam for the duration of the pandemic. Her blog income tanked, and she had to indefinitely postpone a tour in the Korean countryside that she had been planning for years. “My plans for last year have completely changed, and instead I've spent the last year getting to travel all over this country and calling Ho Chi Minh City home.”
While the past year has created financial and career struggles for travel influencers, many have found the opportunity to re-evaluate their own lives, how they approach traveling the world, and what they value about their jobs. They’ve kickstarted projects they’ve had brewing for years, focused on writing and building out content strategies that have taken a backseat to the everyday demands of travel, and faced their own personal tragedies as family members came down with the coronavirus. And they’ve discovered previously dormant appreciation for the idea of “home” and everything that a single city or country has to offer.
Travel influencers — and influencers in general — are not the most sympathetic characters in the eyes of the public, who often view them as being self-absorbed, insincere, and even “insidious.” And certainly, some of the impact of social media on small, unprepared destinations have been difficult for locals to handle. The Dutch tourism board has released campaigns imploring tourists and photographers not to stomp all over fields of tulips after visitors, eager to take photos of themselves among the blooms, destroyed thousands of euros’ worth of the crop. In Southern California, influencers perched among the so-called “Superbloom,” inspiring a legion of social media users and flower lovers to flock to the hills and leaving the small town of Lake Elsinore to grapple with how to manage the young, excited crowds.
But there’s no doubt they’re an important faction in the tourism sector, and true to their name, they wield enormous influence on where and how young people travel. “Facebook conducted research showing that 67 percent of travelers use Instagram to find travel inspiration before booking a trip, and then continue to use the platform to get themselves acquainted with the destination and things to do,” says Faizan Ali, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of South Florida Muma College of Business. He points to a highly successful 2015 influencer marketing campaign, when the town of Wanaka, New Zealand invited a fleet of influencers to experience and post about the region. As a result, the country saw a 14 percent increase in tourism, its fastest tourism growth it’d seen up to then.
Mike Johansson, a lecturer in communication at Rochester Institute of Technology who is currently based in New Zealand, says he saw evidence of travel influencers’ impact when he worked as a social media strategy advisor for a Rochester, NY, tourism board. The city, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, wanted more tourism from Ontario, Canada, so he worked on a plan to invite a group of Ontario-based influencers on a local tour. “That was a really successful effort,” he says. “Bookings from Southern Ontario jumped in the next three months.” It’s a “dotted line” connecting the influencers to the explosion in local tourism, he notes — it’s hard to say for certain that it was the influencers who inspired the sudden interest in the region. But the evidence seems “pretty clear,” he says; despite it being an imperfect system, previously little-known travel destinations and influencers had a mutually beneficial relationship.
All that stopped in 2020. A June 2020 survey of influencers by the industry group Destinations International found that 88 percent of travel influencers had at least one project canceled; 41 percent of those surveyed lost out on $10,000 - $50,000 worth of income. But they are finding new ways forward.
Anna Kloots, a travel influencer based in Paris, had already spent much of 2019 grappling with the fallout — and opportunities — of a divorce. She focused her energies on building out her Instagram and blog audiences, which paid off: “I got one offer that led to another, and I decided to move to Paris. I carved out an entire year of hosting different retreats, like travel retreats for women. I was going to be doing that in Italy, in Morocco. I had four of those lined up in Bali,” she says. She was really proud that all her hard work has transformed into a liveable income, but “then everything was destroyed.” Kloots’ brother-in-law, the stage actor Nick Cordero, had been gravely stricken by the virus, and Kloots returned home to Los Angeles to help her family through the ordeal; Cordero died last July.
She took the time to concentrate on her family, herself, and her writing, which she says is where her true professional passions lie. She signed with a literary agent and sold a book, which comes out in June 2022. “it was kind of like a strange gift in the end,” she says.
Trisha Velarmino, an influencer based in Mexico, has been travel blogging since 2012, before Instagram and the term “travel influencer” even existed, she says. She paid a major price to pursue her dream: Her parents thought she was wasting her educational opportunities to travel, and in response they cut her off. But the lack of financial support forced her to become nimble, a quality that paid off during the pandemic. She consults for Americans interested in becoming digital nomads, a service that people “book like crazy,” she says, and she started a blog, SayulitaInsider.com, that highlights small businesses and tours run by locals.
The experience has also heightened her more critical perspective on travel influencing. “Most of the influencers traveling during the pandemic are white influencers, simply because they can and they have more privilege in entering countries with a vaccine,” Velarmino says. “For us — BIPOC influencers — the options are very limited.” This disparity is also bound to be reflected in the inequality of global vaccination rates, with wealthy nations like America and the U.K. having far more access to the vaccines, making travel easier for their residents.
Wiens notes that vaccination rates are very slowly rising in Thailand, with only about 1.6 percent of the country’s population currently inoculated against the virus. He could theoretically leave Thailand and go abroad, but he’d have to quarantine for two weeks, with or without a vaccine, as the country is currently experiencing its worst wave yet. So for now, he’s hunkering down at home, and has started a new YouTube channel focused on organic farming and sustainable eating.
The past year hasn’t been an entirely easy one for Wiens. Pre-pandemic, he’d film five to eight videos in one location before jetting to another: “The audience grows to expect to see Mexican street food, and then the next month is Uzbekistan food, and then the next month is Malaysian food. So that diversity is part of the reason people really enjoyed the content,” he says. But he’s excited for his new channel, and optimistic about travel in the future. “I definitely see hope on the horizon with the rollout of vaccines. I think, especially if you do choose to get the vaccine, it will definitely open up some travel based destinations to you immediately,” he says.
Kloots has a handful of tentative trips planned for the summer, but she says there’s a good chance they’ll get canceled. She’s also worried that as more and more people start traveling again, that hotels won’t have space or need for influencer services. “They don't want to sacrifice the paying guests to have you be there,” she says.
Johannson, though, thinks she can rest easy. Many people are still too nervous to travel, even if they have the ability to, he says, predicting: “Instead of a huge cresting wave of pent-up demand for travel, it's going to be a series of rolling waves.” ACI World, a nonprofit organization that represents airports, projects that while interest in travel will steadily grow over the course of 2021, global airports will see just half the revenue they earned in 2019.
This makes sense. As much as many people are eager to rush back toward a new normal, only 32 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and those who are haven’t been “fully juiced” for long. Much of the rest of the world lags behind. Many travel influencers are then understandably responding by focusing on what their local communities have to offer — and proceeding more cautiously in the industry generally.
“I don't think I'll ever be 100 percent in the travel industry again, as this pandemic has reminded me how dangerous it can be to put all your eggs in one basket,” says Elizabeth. “Who knows when travel will feel normal again?”