A Reading List on Travel Influencers and the Politics of a Place

Photo by Oleg Magni

Influencers come in many flavors, including kid stars who make more money than you, self-made online traders involved in shady financial schemes, women hunters of #huntstagram, and COVID-denying wellness experts. At the end of 2019, brands were forecast to spend as much as $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022. The pandemic, however, has forced many influencers to shift business models and strategies, especially those whose livelihoods depend on traveling the world.

But even before COVID-19, jet-setting content creators entangled themselves in problematic scenarios, posing questions about privacy, safety, and ownership, among other issues. These seven reads explore the world of travel influencers in the age of Instagram, and the implications of the industry and its content on tourism and politics.

1. How Western Travel Influencers Got Tangled Up in Pakistan’s Politics. (Samira Shackle, November 2020, The Guardian)

In recent years, Western travel bloggers and “adventure tourists” have come to Pakistan to discover the country and write about its beauty, while some — like Cynthia Ritchie — have ended up becoming political voices. Ritchie, who calls her work strategic communications, has received extraordinary access to restricted areas and officials, and her critics accuse her of being “a propagandist for the military with a white saviour complex.” In response, Ritchie and others, like Polish travel vlogger Eva zu Beck, see themselves as truth-tellers and storytellers. At the Guardian, Samira Shackle reports on the politicization of tourism in Pakistan.

The fanbase that has developed around Ritchie can be split into two camps. The first enjoys her travel content, and her sunny portrayals of Pakistan. For the second camp, who actively support the military and spend their time on social media attacking anyone they see as insufficiently patriotic, Ritchie is a useful ally, an outsider who reflects their worldview. “More power to you Cynthia. Keep exposing the filthy culprits who have eaten up this country like mites,” wrote one Twitter user.

In 2019, questions about Ritchie’s links to the army intensified on social media when she posted footage of a trip to Pakistan’s heavily contested tribal areas. She told me that the trip had actually taken place in the run-up to the 2018 election, and that it had been part of an “interview process” at which military officials were “assessing and monitoring me, my experience, and determining my worth and capacity as an individual”, and that afterwards she was offered a big project. It is difficult to know what to make of comments like this, given that at other times Ritchie flat-out denies working for the military.

Having offered this puzzling explanation, Ritchie then dismissed the entire controversy over the pictures as just another fuss about nothing. “Look, if I had anything to hide, I wouldn’t be publishing these things,” she said. She pointed out that anyone who wants to travel to the tribal areas needs army permission: “You can’t access some of these areas without the military.”

2. Instagram Influencers Are Wrecking Public Lands. Meet the Anonymous Account Trying to Stop Them. (Anna Merlan, April 2019, Jezebel)

In the spring of 2019, when areas of Southern California experienced a vibrant superbloom, thousands of tourists trekked to the fields of Lake Elsinore to pose with the poppies. And when the owner of the Instagram account @publiclandshateyou saw a photo of an influencer sitting among (and ruining) the flowers while holding a can of soup, he’d had enough. At Jezebel, Anna Merlan talks with the man behind this account, who educates people on the negative effects of Instagram tourism on the environment.

Right now you’re focusing pretty heavily on damage done during the superbloom. That must be because it’s the hot thing to photograph right now.

Exactly. Previously it was graffiti on rocks in national parks, but the superbloom is the thing of the moment. Influencers see this cool thing, do what they need to do to promote their products or take a cool picture. And then they move on to whatever else is cool, whether it’s, for instance, going out to the California coast, going past “closed” signs and taking a picture under a waterfall. Or whatever. And then Lake Elsinore, where Walker Canyon is, gets stuck with the aftermath. The people who live there. They have a poppy preserve that looks like a checkerboard. The people who did the damage are long gone. They’re on to the next thing.

The pushback you get seems to be a lot of comments like “they’re just flowers,” with the case of the superbloom photos, or comments that you need to calm down and focus on “real problems.”

I do try to respond to that and try to provide my point of view and get people to see, who might have lived in a city their whole life, who might not understand the biology of these areas. I say to them, “You’re not wrong, but I think that a lot of these bigger problems are symptoms of people not thinking about the little things and their impact.” Whether it’s the impact of of me stepping on a couple poppies or me getting my takeout tonight in a styrofoam container, people aren’t thinking about the impact of their actions and that’s applicable to small things like going off the trail, all the way up to big global issues like climate change or microplastics in the water.

3. Selfies and Sharia Police. (Mehr Nadeem, November 2020, Rest of World)

Instagram is the last open social media platform in Iran, where Iranians have felt freer to be themselves. For high-schooler and influencer Roya, this means taking photos of herself on the streets of Tehran, sans hijab, or wearing bright eye makeup or going sleeveless — types of things that are frowned upon by Iranian authorities. But as Instagram evolves into more of a space for organizing and political change in Iran, the government has increased surveillance on the app, writes Mehr Nadeem at Rest of World.

The increased threat of arrest is giving pause to Iranian Instagrammers who once saw the platform as a safe space to post freely.

Vania, a 17-year-old aspiring violinist who created her Instagram account to post videos of her music, saw that her friends were becoming careful of their online activity in the wake of the crackdowns. “One of my friends sings [on Instagram], and she was so worried, she did an encrypted location of another country in the caption so that they wouldn’t think she was Iranian,” Vania told Rest of World. It’s illegal for women to publicly sing in Iran, unless they perform to female-only audiences.

Sahba, an Iranian artist based in Canada, said she has second thoughts before posting to Instagram, even from her home in Vancouver. “I wasn’t really worried until the November protests, when I saw how people were arrested on the streets because of their social media posts,” Sahba said. “I try not to censor myself politically, but it’s something that’s always going to be in my head.

4. Whose Facade Is It, Anyway? (Alexandra Marvar, February 2019, Curbed)

Posing in front of photo-worthy facades like colorful street murals and famous buildings is one thing, but snapping a picture on someone’s property — in front of their pretty pastel door or on their adorable wraparound porch  — raises issues of privacy and etiquette. At Curbed, Alexandra Marvar explores homeownership in the age of the Instagram travel influencer.

Travel blogger and micro-influencer Valerie Furgerson, @redgypsea, says she’s never had a negative interaction with a homeowner: “A sort of influencer photographer’s code that I live by is, if you’re going to be shooting in a residential area, know what shots you want to get ahead of time and be quick about it. Not all tourists live by this code,” she says. “We definitely saw full-on photo shoots happening at Rainbow Row in Savannah, complete with big reflective umbrellas. I have found that if you are respectful of the residents, they will also be respectful of you.” I came across Furgerson’s feed by searching for pictures of Rainbow Row and reaching out to users who did photoshoots directly on the shipping pallet-sized front porches of these private homes.

“I don’t mind people just taking photos,” said T’s pink-shutters neighbor (whom I’ll keep anonymous), “but really I find it an invasion of my space when it’s on my porch.” If she’s returning on foot to her home and sees someone on her porch taking pictures, she hangs back until they’ve wrapped up their activities. But on more than one occasion, she’s been startled to open her front door to a person, or a group of people, posing in front of her. “The other thing,” she says, “is that it opens up liability issues that I don’t even want to think about.”

5. What I Learned at the Most Instagrammed Outdoor Places. (Lisa Chase, July 2020, Outside)

While visiting Arizona’s iconic landmarks and tourist hotspots like the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, Lisa Chase, writing for Outside, examines our obsession with documenting ourselves in nature, and the evolving art and process of photography in the era of iPhone-toting outdoor enthusiasts.

There have to be 75 to 100 of us here, all with smartphones in hand, tapping away. One teenage girl positions herself in warrior one pose on a rock, her back to the sun, slender arms overhead, taking a selfie. Nearby there’s a group of French guys murmuring “C’est magnifique” as they take photos of themselves in the gloaming. I think about an article I’d read by Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who has studied the psychology of selfie culture. “A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment,” she wrote in The New York Times in 2013. “The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us ‘on pause’ in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations ‘on pause’ when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.”

6. Travel Influencers, Meet Authoritarian Regimes. (Krithika Varagur, October 2020, Rest of World)

In December 2019, celebrities and Western travel bloggers were invited to attend a music festival in Riyadh, put on by Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, in order to promote tourism to the region. “The Instagram posts coming out of the festival looked more Coachella than Sharia,” writes Krithika Varagur, and for those who attended the event, criticism was harsh. At Rest of World, Varagur asks: How could these influencers accept a paid trip from a repressive monarchy?

Despite this, several prominent influencers turned down the MDL Beast trip on ethical grounds, including American actress Emily Ratajkowski and American model Teddy Quinlivan. Quinlivan, who is transgender, said on her Instagram story: “If you have any semblance of journalistic integrity, maybe it might be a cute idea not to take money from foreign governments that, um, I don’t know, openly kill and assassinate journalists [and] LGBTQ+ people. Suppress women’s rights, suppress religious rights – I mean the list of shit goes on.”

“Every traveler has an obligation to think about the ethical consequences of their trip. … But it is even more critical for influencers because they are such important role models, especially for young people,” said Dr. Ulrike Gretzel, who researches technology and social media marketing at the University of Southern California. “Uncritically spreading political propaganda is unethical under all circumstances and especially in the form of branded content, where the lines are very blurry, and the audience might therefore not recognize it as such.”

7. The Digital Nomads Did Not Prepare for This. (Erin Griffith, November 2020, The New York Times)

“If you’re going to work from home indefinitely, why not make a new home in an exotic place?” In the New York Times, Erin Griffith shares the stories of those privileged enough to escape lockdown by joining the globe-trotting, remote-working set. But they eventually realize it’s not what they expect it to be. These digital nomads may not call themselves travel influencers, but the idyllic, away-from-home settings they work in — as they wait out the pandemic — are the same.

They Instagrammed their workdays from empty beach resorts in Bali and took Zoom meetings from tricked-out camper vans. They made balcony offices at cheap Tulum Airbnbs and booked state park campsites with Wi-Fi. They were the kind of people who actually applied to those remote worker visa programs heavily advertised by Caribbean countries. And occasionally they were deflated.

Others are struggling with the same vacation fatigue experienced by Mr. Malka, the Cabo-to-London-to-maybe-Bali wanderer. According to research conducted at Radboud University in the Netherlands, it takes eight days of vacation for people to reach peak happiness. It’s downhill from there.

When the pandemic hit, Mr. Stylianoudis, the lawyer, was on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. At first, he couldn’t complain about the tropical locale. Each day, after work, he swam in crystal-clear water. But after five months, he was itching to get out. He had become a regular at the island’s 7-Eleven. He even grew tired of the beach — something he hadn’t thought was possible.

The feeling of being trapped in paradise was hard to explain. “I started to feel like I was in a sequel of ‘Lost,’” he said.