Covid: UK influencers scramble to justify exotic getaways

By Archie Bland

In ordinary times influencers posting from Dubai go out of their way to show you what a good time they are having. In Covid’s latest cruel reversal, they are now doing everything they can to show that they are working their socks off.

With a rising number of cases leading the UK to announce that the United Arab Emirates would be removed from its travel corridor list from Tuesday, British nationals returning home now face 10 days in isolation.

And in the aftermath of that announcement by the UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps, social media users have realised that an extraordinary number of the former stars of the TV series Love Island and Geordie Shore appear to be, at present, in the UAE.

Some of these exiled influencers are posting the same sunloungers-and-posh-dinners content as before – Dubai is not subject to lockdown measures like the UK. But now they are having to scramble to delete the hostile messages ensuing from their followers.

With “essential work trips” being the only exception to the UK’s travel rules in place since November, some of the influencers in Dubai are trying to indicate that their 3,400-mile trip was a necessary part of their work – appearing in videos and paid-for endorsements.

As reaction built up on Wednesday, the Love Island star Anton Danyluk, who has been in Dubai since 10 December and has posted images of himself out for meals and smoking shisha in a pool, showed a video of his laptop with a view of the skyline behind it and the caption “love my office view”.

Meanwhile, The Only Way Is Essex star James Lock posted at least two images of his laptop, with unspecified graphs on screen, in his stories. On Wednesday morning he told his followers he and his girlfriend, Yazmin Oukhellou, were “working away, despite what you may think, we are still grafting”. He posted a video of himself sunbathing, with a drink but no laptop, an hour later.

Oukhellou, also an influencer, had previously explained that the Dubai trip was for an unavoidable product launch. “We are here for work purposes, for business,” she said. “Obviously we’ll make the most of it while we’re here as well.”

They are far from alone. The Geordie Shore stars Chloe Ferry, Sophie Kasaei, and Bethan Kershaw, said the apartment they had rented had a room devoted to producing sponsored content.

Gabby Allen, another Love Islander, has told her followers: “Hey guys, just to let you know, we made the decision to fly out to Dubai as my boyfriend’s business is based here and luckily allows us to travel.”

Others could have travelled before the UK ban on non-essential international journeys was imposed in November. The Love Island star Kaz Crossley has been there since October and, her agent said, was therefore a “resident” rather than tourist, the same claim made by fellow islander Georgia Harrison.

The extraordinary proliferation of workaholic influencers in Dubai, taking refuge even as the coronavirus case count rises, led the writer Clive Martin to describe the emirates hotspot as “the Covid Casablanca”.

Residents might welcome their city’s popularity with British tourists in general, but some are unimpressed by the latest deluge.

“With all of them coming in, getting reservations at attractions and slots for residents has been so difficult,” said Rhea Matthew, a social care executive. She said the problem was a specifically British one and coincided with the rising case count in the UAE. “Our city became so full overnight. Things were good and then boom – tourists everywhere. Things are escalating here and it’s scary.”

The UAE government has cited “a significant acceleration in the number of imported cases”.

In the influencers’ defence, Laura Anderson, another Love Island veteran, who is in Dubai, said: “I saw someone in my comments saying you’re on holiday, but when you’re working you’re not on holiday … I’m definitely not out and about every day as I need to be on my laptop working and life here is strict.”

But Olivia Attwood, yet another Love Islander, summarised such arguments derisively from her home in Manchester. “It’s the constant ‘I’m working, not on holiday’ shout,” she said in a video. “There is a difference between being able to earn money wherever you are, and being there for work.”

With scrutiny of the reality stars intensifying, Trending Travel, a holiday company that specialises in using celebrities to advertise, said it had been forced to stop posting anything featuring influencers.

Its chief executive, Keith Herman, said the company had advised about 15 influencers it works with, and who are in Dubai, against posting at the moment.

“Most have listened to us,” he said. “We’ve told them the world has changed over the last two weeks, you’ve got to be more sensitive to who is seeing your posts.” In their defence, he said, some had contracts to honour and were inexperienced. But he added: “Morally they should just lie low at the moment.”

Sarah Penny, head of content at the marketing agency Influencer Intelligence, said that such posts were ill-advised even from a branding standpoint. “We’ve been monitoring the situation throughout the pandemic and it’s clear that audiences are very sensitive to people’s [behaviour]. I completely understand they have to work, but it’s a very blinkered and short-term way of looking at it.”

The influencers themselves, meanwhile, were not keen to expand on their social media statements. Of the 23 contacted by the Guardian only Crossley’s agency provided a statement on her behalf. Twenty-one did not respond, while Danyluk’s agent asked if the influencer would receive a fee.