MUMBAI, Maharashtra — Ankita Kumar (@monkey.inc) was supposed to be in picturesque Manipur this April on assignment with the state tourism board; Sharanya Iyer (@trulynomadly) planned to backpack across Africa and scale Mount Kilimanjaro.
Shivya Nath (@shivya) was meant to be in the deep forests of Madhya Pradesh for a workshop on sustainable tourism marketing. YouTuber Larissa D’Sa (@Larissa_wlc) was meant to dive in Lakshadweep, travel with the Kolkata Knight Riders for their IPL matches, and then jet off to the Spiti valley.
Blogger Saloni Chopra (@redheadwayfarer) would have been in Florence and Barcelona in April but both trips have been cancelled. “It breaks my heart seeing how many people are losing their lives in Europe,” she said. “When you see the places you’ve had some of your best memories in suffering like this, it feels unreal.”
For now, all five — every Indian travel influencer like them — is grounded in lock-down in their apartments as they wait out the global coronavirus pandemic.
So what do those, who find themselves rock-climbing in Frankenjura with grit and a GoPro, lunching at a low-key vegan cafe in Tel Aviv before hashtagging it #FoodPorn, kayaking in Halong Bay, chasing sunsets and trams in Lisbon, diving into infinity pools before returning to an appropriately hipster Airbnb in São Paulo, do when they are stuck in their homes in Bhandup, Bhubaneswar and Bengaluru?
As the economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic deepens, the dipping fortunes of India’s online influencers offer a glimpse of the deeper troubles ravaging the Indian economy. The Indian travel and hospitality industry is expected to see a 8500-crore hit this year, the worst in history, as segments across the industry’s food chain are impacted: flights, hotels, cruises, tour operators, adventure companies, e-agents and of course, influencers.
“Everything is in a state of confusion,” Ankita Kumar, whose Instagram is followed by over 68,000 people, told HuffPost India.
“Brands are thinking that it’d be inconsiderate to promote travel at this point and rightly so. We’re all sitting at home. Your biggest dilemma is what to watch on Netflix which is not quite a real problem,” she said pointing out that these woes don’t compare to what those relying on daily wages are enduring.
Kumar said that the slowdown in travel-related partnerships has cost her between Rs 2.5 and Rs 3 lakh a month. “Meanwhile, I am utilising this time to revisit my favourite authors.”
With flights grounded and borders sealed, travel influencers are facing a uniquely millennial quandary: How to keep their feeds active without sounding tone deaf at a time when India’s national lockdown is expected to impoverish millions?
“It’s the freelance industry where payments take an average of 60 days to come through. So right now I am surviving on Jan-Feb money,” said Sharanya Iyer, who was on a paid assignment in Thailand in the last week of January when two Chinese travellers accompanying her received alarming messages from their employees in Shanghai about the magnitude of the coronavirus.
“That’s when I realised this is serious,” Iyer told HuffPost India. Upon her return to India, she learnt that several upcoming assignments had been postponed indefinitely. For now, Iyer said she’s looking at old content in her devices and refurbishing them to fit into the present narrative.
“I am looking at do-at-home fitness regimes and other lifestyle things to keep my feed active,” she said. “I am also using my platform to counter misinformation around the coronavirus.”
Several influencers told HuffPost India they were contemplating moving out of their rented apartments and back home to their parents as work dried up and overhead costs piled up. YouTuber Larissa D’Sa, who has two full time employees who help her produce content, said she had given her assistants paid leave.
“Since I’ve been travelling non-stop for the past 3 months and had a lot of pending content, I was actually praying for some time off,” D’Sa told HuffPost India. “And funnily, I have gotten much more work than usual in this period of lockdown. I’m happy to be at home.”
D’Sa said she plans to raise funds to help those affected by the pandemic, but said she was keeping her feed free of COVID-19 related content.
“We’re all so overwhelmed by the news that we’re watching. Of course they are super important. But we need to lighten up the mood, hence I made the prank call video,” she said, referring to a video she posted on her YouTube channel a couple of days ago. “Many people are looking for some entertainment. And every brand is trying to get content around this. I have about 5-6 videos that can go down on my YouTube in the next few weeks.”
D’Sa said she would probably lose projects worth Rs 10 lakhs to the pandemic. “Plus, I’ve the overheads. I have rent to pay and two employees who help me around.”
Santoshi Shetty, who has over 7 lakh followers on her Instagram, said that while work has definitely slowed down, she’s conscious of the time she’s getting to spend at home.
“Recently, I returned from Bali and the energy and vibrations of that place has transformed me.” Shetty said she’s using the time to meditate, delete things from her phone while using some of the content that’s already produced. She was supposed to be at the Tomorrowland Festival in France but that has been called off.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “As you are constantly creating content, you don’t value those experiences as they happen. You are constantly commodifying every moment. I’m taking this time to reminisce.”
Said Saloni Chopra, who has over 4 lac followers,“I think when people cannot travel is when they’re itching to travel the most. Throwback updates from previous trips help a lot. I’ve been dedicating time writing on my couples travel page that I own with my boyfriend called @saerahstamps ... and I’m talking to my followers - asking them what makes them happy, motivating them, reminding them that they’re not alone in this, that it is okay, safety comes first and that mental health is extremely crucial right now.”
Shivya Nath, who uses her account to advocate for sustainable tourism, said the pandemic was a good time to “for one to reflect on what we’ve done to nature.”
In her most recent post, Nath spoke about the lockdown and how it has affected her plans. “A lot of my friends rely on the traffic they get on their platform/blog posts for revenue but that doesn’t seem to be happening as people aren’t searching about travel right now,” she said.
Nath did the poll of her followers to ask if she should still post travel content, as she had as she had material from at least 3 past trips but wasn’t sure if her audience would be receptive. Her followers overwhelmingly voted for her to keep posting travel content, but she’s not sure.
“Even the brands weren’t sure if it was such a great idea,” she said. “I’ve put them on hold as it doesn’t quite make sense at this point.”
Pranay Swarup, who runs the influencer marketing company Chtrbox said that brands investing consumers to go outdoors has definitely taken a hit. He pointed that there’s been a spike too.
“We have see an increase in demand from streaming and media platforms. Our team recently worked on a campaign where travel influencers were suggested for the launch of a new OTT platform that targets consumers interested in wildlife, photography and adventure,” he said adding that travel Influencers are naturally well suited to engage audiences with similar interests. “Other such avenues are health and travel insurance companies, food brands that offer ways to cook international cuisines at home, books about travel and so on.”
Shivya Nath said that while the slowdown has given everyone much needed pause, once the industry bounces back, influencers will be more important than ever before. “Destinations would want to spread the word about how it’s safe to travel there. I am optimistic.”
However, travel blogger Siddhartha Joshi, 39, said that things won’t go back to normalcy, until at least 2021. While many bloggers are dipping into the archives of their past trip, Joshi said content from his previous sojourns have become fairly useless as some of those places are completely devastated right now.
“I cannot just say, hey, look at this beautiful place, this lovely hotel, and how amazing my experience was here,” Joshi said, adding that in a few weeks, he was to embark on his career’s biggest project — a multi-country tour, which stands indefinitely postponed and may not happen at all.
“It’s sad but understandable,” he said. “This is bigger than you, me, influencing, travelling and tourism boards.”
As income from travel-related collaborations have dried up, Joshi said some influencers are still doing product reviews of accessories like mobile phones, travel bags, and even hotels.
“It doesn’t feel right. Even when things normalise, it will take a lot of time for people to feel confident about travelling,” he said, adding that if the lockdown is prolonged, he may have to consider vacating his Mumbai apartment and moving in with his sister, or moving back to his parent’s home in Pune. “We’re still fairly privileged in that sense. I can’t imagine what those, who don’t have these alternatives, must be going through.”