NEW YORK — In a season of lockdowns, Ms Georgia Steel was jet-setting.rrA digital influencer and reality television star, Ms Steel left England in late December for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where she promoted lingerie on Instagram from a luxury hotel. By January, she was at a resort in the Maldives, where spa treatments include body wraps with sweet basil and coconut powder.rr“We be drippin’,” Ms Steel, 22, told her 1.6 million Instagram followers in a post that showed her wading through tropical waters in a bikini. Never mind that Covid-19 caseloads in Britain and the Maldives were escalating or that England had just announced its third lockdown.rrThe Maldives, an island nation off the coast of India, is not only tolerating tourists like Ms Steel but also urging them to visit. More than 300,000 have arrived since the country reopened its borders last summer, including several dozen influencers, social media stars with large followings who are often paid to hawk products.rrMany influencers have been courted by the government and travelled on paid junkets to exclusive resorts.rrThe government says its open-door strategy is ideal for a tourism-dependent country whose decentralised geography — about 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean — helps with social distancing. Since the borders reopened, well under one per cent of arriving visitors have tested positive for the coronavirus, official data show.rr“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” said Mr Thoyyib Mohamed, managing director of the country’s official public relations agency. “But for the time being, I must say, this is a really good case study for the entire world, especially tropical destinations.”rrThe Maldives’ strategy comes with public health risks and underscores how far-flung vacation spots and the influencers they court have become flashpoints for controversy.rrAs people around the world shelter in place, some influencers have posted about fleeing to small towns or foreign countries and encouraging their followers to do the same, potentially endangering locals and others with whom they come in contact on their travels.rr“So we’re just not in a pandemic huh?” Ms Beverly Cowell, an administrator in England, commented on Ms Steel’s Instagram post, giving voice to many who see such travellers as skirting the rules.rrWhen the Maldives shut its borders last March to guard against the virus, it did not make the decision lightly. Tourism employs more than 60,000 of the country’s 540,000 people, more than any other industry in the private sector, according to Ms Nashiya Saeed, a consultant in the Maldives who recently co-wrote a government study on the pandemic’s economic impact.rr“When tourism shut down, there was no revenue coming into the country,” Ms Saeed said. Many laid-off resort workers who live in the capital, Malé, were forced to moved back to their home islands because they could no longer afford it, she added.rrAs health authorities worked to contain local outbreaks, president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s advisers developed a strategy for restarting tourism as quickly as possible. One advantage was that most of the country’s luxury resorts are on their own islands, making isolation and contact tracing much easier.rr“We really planned this out, we knew what our advantages were, and we played to them,” said Mr Solih’s spokesperson, Mr Mohamed Mabrook Azeez.rrWhen the Maldives reopened in July, health officials required PCR tests, among other safety protocols, but did not subject tourists to mandatory quarantines. Around the same time, the country’s public relations agency switched its international marketing campaign and urged travellers to “rediscover” the Maldives.rrThe government and local businesses also invited influencers to stay at resorts and gush about them on social media. Which they did.rr“When it’s cloudy be the sunshine!”Ms Ana Cheri, an American influencer with more than 12 million followers, wrote from a Maldives resort in November, a few weeks before her home state of California imposed far-reaching lockdowns.rr“Splashing and swinging into the weekend!”rrMs Cheri 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.rrEven before the pandemic, influencers faced backlashes when their trips caused offense. Some who posted about travelling in Saudi Arabia were criticised, for instance, because of the kingdom’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.rrInfluencers from England in particular have faced criticism in recent weeks for defying lockdown rules that ban all but essential travel. Some defended their trips, saying that travelling was essential to their work, while others apologised under public pressure.rr“I was like, ‘Oh, well, it’s legal, so it’s fine,’” influencer KT Franklin said in an apology video about her trip to the Maldives. “But it’s not fine. It’s really irresponsible and reckless and tone-deaf.”rrIn late January, Britain banned direct flights to and from Dubai as the Covid-19 caseload soared in both places. Its lax immigration rules and perpetual sunshine had made it a popular spot for the social media set.rrBut as case numbers rose, officials closed bars and pubs for a month and limited hotels, malls and beach clubs to 70 per cent capacity.rrOfficials in the Maldives, which has welcomed nearly 150,000 tourists so far this year, said they had no plans to roll out similar restrictions.rrThe country has reported nearly 20,000 total coronavirus infections, equivalent to about four per cent of its population, and 60 deaths. But no resort clusters have seeded widespread community transmission, and officials say the risk of that is low because some resort employees are required to quarantine if they travel between islands.rr“All in all, I think we’ve managed to do it well,” even though some tourists have tested positive before leaving the country, said Dr Nazla Rafeeg, head of communicable disease control at the government’s Health Protection Agency.rr“Our guidelines have stood up to the actual implementation.” THE NEW YORK TIMES r
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