As a travel host and video producer, Andrew Gunadie usually finds himself on a plane every two to three weeks, flying out with his camera crew to work on commissioned projects for television networks or filming content for his YouTube channel. The threat of coronavirus infection had been in the back of his mind since late January as he traveled through Japan and Taiwan for Lunar New Year, but it wasn’t until the end of February, when other countries were reporting a significant uptick in cases, that he realized the pandemic could severely disrupt not just his nomadic lifestyle but his job.
”You always assume some degree of risk when you travel, but right now we’re in a bit of an unknown volatile period,” Gunadie told me. “I think that any sensible person would have reservations about going anywhere right now. I’m not so worried about myself as I am for others — my crew and the civilians we might come into contact with.”
Countries around the world are swiftly enforcing travel restrictions to curb the virus’s spread. Airlines are suspending flights to reduce or, in some cases, cut off entire routes to destinations with a spike in coronavirus cases — places like mainland China, Italy, and South Korea.
The travel and tourism industry as a whole is reeling in the face of the pandemic, which the World Travel and Tourism Council predicts could leave as many as 50 million jobs at risk. Airlines, hotels, and travel agencies are slashing budgets, and companies, regardless of scale, are issuing coronavirus-related layoffs. Norwegian Air will temporarily lay off up to half of its workforce, MGM Resorts is starting to furlough and lay off workers through June 30, and travel agencies across the US are steadily letting go of employees as bookings fall through.
In the face of this industry-wide meltdown, there’s a small category of professional travelers — bloggers, creatives, photographers, and video producers like Gunadie — whose careers are being thrown into disarray. Most are freelancers, who partner with or are contracted by travel-related companies to do promotional work, copywriting, or video editing. Many are proud globe-trotters who document their travels to an audience of thousands, broadcasting their experiences through online blogs or social media posts.
Bloggers of all types started to monetize their websites in the mid-2000s through ads, as blogs entered the mainstream and traditional media outlets started hiring online writers and even starting their own blogs. With the advent of social media and popular platforms like WordPress and Blogspot, it’s become much easier to jump-start a career as a professional travel blogger — provided a person has enough money to sponsor themselves as they start off.
In recent years, however, some travel bloggers and influencers have been criticized for demanding all-expenses-paid trips and amenities, sharing photo locations that encourage overtourism, and displaying at times tone-deaf attitudes toward global politics when it comes to promoting travel. There are, of course, plenty of professional travelers who are aware of their work’s impact on tourism, but online, many people have grown disillusioned with the glamour and allure of their lifestyle.
”It is a privileged lifestyle that I get to travel for a living,” Ciara Johnson, a travel influencer and blogger with more than 57,000 Instagram followers, told me. “On the other hand, I recognize that it’s a business I’ve spent five years building from the ground up, spending thousands of dollars to get started.”
On social media, users have started making jokes about how Covid-19 will force travel bloggers to get “a real job” or, at the very least, create content about their newly quarantined lifestyles as international travel becomes increasingly restricted. Some influencers are facing backlash online for continuing to post and interact with audiences without mentioning the pandemic or its effects on travel and the economy overall.
While most of these influencers are technically part of the gig economy, their financial benefits and stability are often more secure than those of the average ride-hail driver or grocery delivery person. Most are, in a sense, accustomed to having some level of uncertainty when it comes to how much income they’re expected to make in a year.
That level of flexibility isn’t necessarily available for every worker, and millions of people could be left without a job once the pandemic is contained. As the coronavirus outbreak threatens to disrupt most industries, economists at the UCLA Anderson School of Management have predicted that the unemployment rate would rise to 6.3 percent by the end of 2020, from today’s 3.5 percent rate. That means roughly 3.5 million lost jobs across all industries, David Wilcox of the Peterson Institute for International Economics told CNBC. Already, sectors like hospitality, foodservice, and travel have started laying off a significant part of their workforce. A poll surveying 835 working adults over the weekend found that about 18 percent of people have been laid off or had work hours cut.
”It is the nature of a freelance job that nothing is ever guaranteed,” said Johnson, who hasn’t traveled professionally so far this year. “It’s worrying to know that the companies who have hired you are likely to decrease budgets, but right now, I’m taking it a month at a time.” Still, most bloggers are heavily dependent on travel agencies and tourism-related partnerships to make the bulk of their money.
Johnson is expecting payments for her past projects to provide her income until June, and she’s actively scoping out opportunities in freelance writing and brand promotion that don’t require her to be at a specific destination. In her experience, press trips aren’t scheduled too far ahead of time; an influencer might be extended an early invitation for a trip in the summer but concrete plans and bookings are usually made “a few weeks to a month out,” she added.
At this point, however, the future appears uncertain. The New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz reported that many bloggers are “feeling in a state of purgatory,” since many brands and travel agencies are unwilling to commit to anything in the near future. A cruise influencer told Lorenz that tour operators are “having issues essentially with commitment,” with some companies continuing ahead with scheduled trips and others remaining unsure.
Selena Taylor, who runs the Find Us Lost blog, told BuzzFeed’s Tanya Chen that a significant part of her income is generated through sales and bookings made through the affiliate links she posts. Taylor has noticed a dip in people booking hotels and Airbnbs as international travel is slowly grinding to a halt. Some bloggers have pivoted to posting wellness and quarantine tips, and are sharing articles about how to “flatten the curve” to reduce risk for others.
Gunadie, who has an audience of travelers, said he’s starting to share more articles about “social distancing” and proper hygiene since people “need to start paying attention.” He has been staying home since his last two trips in early March working on preproduction for other content. “I’m avoiding nonessential travel right now, and I know that a lot of industry friends have had gigs canceled,” he told me. “I have enough to keep me busy that I can work from home without feeling like too much has changed.”
Johnson said that “things are going to get difficult” if the situation hasn’t improved in three to six months. “We’re going to have to get very creative,” she said. “People are going to need some sort of reprieve from reality, some sort of entertainment or escapism, and that’s where I think we creators come in.” Financially surviving the coronavirus outbreak and the possible recession on the horizon depends on how many followers a blogger has and how willing they are to reposition themselves in a post-pandemic world. BuzzFeed reported that one influencer’s February income was cut in half and another had six “substantial projects” canceled. This could significantly affect bloggers with smaller followings, who can earn anywhere from $200 to $100,000 a month from multiple streams of revenue.
While global air travel is expected to decline and airlines are rapidly losing revenue, travel influencers are hopeful that demand for content will pick up once the pandemic is successfully contained. “There’s going to be an opportunity to tell meaningful stories,” Gunadie said. “What do people want and need to know? How can we inspire them to get on a plane again? Maybe it’s not about finding the top spots to take an Instagram but the story of a really cool restaurant in Chinatown that survived in the age of a pandemic.”
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