How are travel influencers in Pakistan coping amidst tighter advertising budgets and flight disruptions as the coronavirus toll continues to rise?
While the coronavirus pandemic has affected everything, the travel industry is perhaps among some of the hardest-hit.
As the number of infections rose, flight operations around the world started getting suspended. Hospitality marketers were soon forced to tighten their advertising budgets over Covid-19 fears and pulling out of projects. Next, tourist attractions all over the world shut their doors. Events like Coachella and London Marathon were postponed and many countries imposed major travel restrictions. Travel influencers around the world were affected as a result. This included some Pakistani bloggers.
Anam Hakeem, a digital creator and travel storyteller, says she was planning to use her UK visa to travel to some countries that do not require you to apply for their visa if you have a UK visa. She had got her UK visa for a trip sponsored by British Airways. “I had also got a US visa in February. I was planning on using these two visas to travel extensively in Europe”. The plan was aborted as foreign travel started shutting down in February.
Lecturer-turned- blogger, Mahvish Ahmad, says that her plans for a short trip to Estonia for Easter break never materialised. “We had not booked flights for that yet but we had bought tickets to travel to Rome for a friend’s wedding,” she says.
Usman Zubair is a travel photographer. He says that he was planning to go to Turkey in May and wanted to also cover Russia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan in August. “That’s not going to happen [now] so I am just staying home,” he says.
Bilal Hassan, a doctor with a penchant for travel, culture and social commentary in Pakistan, says that he had been saving up for a whole year to go backpacking across six countries in the Balkans. The plans have had to be cancelled.
“It makes you feel sad, frustrated, and sometimes anxious. You just want the situation to get better as soon as it can,” says Hakeem, the ‘Girl with a Green Passport,’ whose Instagram following currently stands at around 28,000.
The influencer economy around the world relies on freelance projects, branded collaborations and paid assignments. With travel restrictions now in place, travel influencers are facing difficulties like cancelled sponsored trips and a lack of original content. For Pakistani bloggers, however, things do not seem too bad.
“The fact that borders were closed in Europe didn’t impact my content creation per se. My content has always revolved around every day experiences as a desi mum learning the ropes in Europe,” says Ahmad, who runs an Instagram blog called ‘Safarnamay’. Currently, she has around 41,000 followers.
Hassan of ‘mystapaki’, says that since his page is focused mainly on day to day life in Karachi and a little bit of social commentary on issues that affect Pakistanis, his work hasn’t been affected as well.
According to Hakeem, the influencer economy has not shrunk, if anything, it has gotten better. “Ever since the lockdown happened media consumption of all kinds went through the roof. When the lockdown began, [most] brands weren’t active in communication with influencers. Only the hygiene-related brands were active. But after a little while, all kinds of brands started reaching out to influencers,” says Hakeem, who runs a digital agency.
Ahmad concurs, “there are products whose demand has increased… My paid collaborations with such brands could continue as planned.”
Most travel bloggers agree that many businesses have seen an increase in online ordering and have reached out to influencers for marketing. The future looks bright.
However, there are a few who differ with them.
Gul Jabeen, a travel blogger and a data scientist based in, Germany, says that prior to the pandemic, she had told her followers that she’d take them on a virtual ride to Italy. “However, it couldn’t happen. I have to work on new topics to establish an engaging and effective content.” Urooj Hussain, a travel blogger and media strategist, doesn’t seem too happy with the times either. “The lockdown has prevented me from going literally anywhere except for a visit to the doctor when needed or to the grocery store,” she says.
“There are no collaborations or paid opportunities at the moment, so the influencers have to pivot and try out new areas to keep their audience engaged,” says Huma Tariq, a travel blogger who runs ‘Thenorthdrive’ on Instagram. “A friend of mine, who recently quit advertising to pursue full-time travel blogging is of the view that Pakistan has a great potential for travel. He feels that we, as travel bloggers, are walking on precarious ground and will have to tread carefully otherwise we can go extinct in no time,” she adds.
Zubair, whose Instagram account currently has around 30,000 followers, has similar views. “I think most online campaigns are running and aren’t affected by the pandemic, but the on-ground campaigns have stopped. Of course, the campaigns related to travel industry and food have died completely,” he says.
Most Pakistani content creators have revenue streams other than travel writing to fall back on. According to Hakeem, “in Pakistan, there is literally no one who is just a travel blogger so that they can rely on travel blogging alone.”
Hussain, who has an Instagram blog, ‘threedayweekend.life’, also says that almost all Pakistani travel bloggers have another source of income.
For Hassan, travel blogging is a passion project. He is a full-time doctor besides. Gul Jabeen is a data scientist besides running a travel blog, ‘Travel with Gul’.
Change in content strategy
According to Ali Hamdani, the Landmark Pakistan CEO, most Pakistani travel content creators who have been relying on brand partnerships for their content have to improvise their content during the pandemic. He says the content has to be responsible. “They can’t just say that everything is hunky-dory. They have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders as, despite the fact that people want to see fresh content from them, they also look up to them and want to relate. It is important to send out a message of responsibility while creating new content”, says Hamdani. His tourism promotion and destination marketing company has been responsible for enabling the work of leading international content creators in Pakistan including Eva Zu Beck and Mark Weins. He says bloggers need to keep a balance between fresh content that is uplifting and what is relevant to the times.
With so many things changing for them, many influencers including Hakeem, Zubair and Ahmad struggled initially with what to say to their audiences. Many of them continued to post their throwback pictures. Eventually, they changed strategies.
Koumal, an adventure traveller, yogi and a mind, body and soul wellness facilitator, says that she started posting more content about creating awareness about pandemic, self-development and mindfulness. “Another thing I did was live sessions, where I got to interact more with my audience. It keeps my audience connected with me,” says Koumal, who has been running an Instagram blog “theunseenvoyage”since 2016.
Hassan, on the other hand, believes that this is a historic moment in our lives that needs to be documented. “Sometimes I add some things from my personal life like getting a haircut from my siblings or learning to cook. I find all this very relatable to everyone.”
Considering the fact that the pandemic may pose serious challenges for travellers, at least for the next couple of years, the future of travel blogging/influencing seems uncertain at the moment. However, many travel bloggers seem hopeful.
“I think nobody knows what will happen or when we will be able to travel freely the way we uses to,” says Koumal. “But definitely it will be a big challenge for full-time travel content creators. I believe we will all start adding different content categories to our profiles to keep it going for the time being.”
Hakeem says that her target would be to pitch international brands, for example, airlines, hotels, go pro, Samsung, Squarespace, that invest in travel influencers. “Personally for me, I do see a future in international brands after the pandemic is over”. Tariq anticipates a change in people’s preferences for travel destinations. “People will now prefer travelling to safer places with better public health standards” which may, in turn, affect their demand for travel content.
Ahmad believes that travel bloggers will have to diversify, at least temporarily. “It is possible that in the quest to diversify, one lands untapped talent or interest which may open up fresh and more lucrative avenues.” But she says that even those who depend solely on travel blogging, shouldn’t lose hope. “Search and ask what else can you create, share and showcase.”
According to Hamdani, the travel industry will resurge sooner than later. “It won’t wait till the last patient recovers. I think it will only wait till we find a vaccine or there is some medication available. I think many countries will open up sooner than later and I won’t put years on it.” Hamdani is of the view that once all of this is over remote locations might see an uptick. “Once this pandemic is over there are some things that will change for good. Not just for content creators but for the general public as a whole.” He says that once you go through a trauma you stay cautious for a long time to come and it is not easy to come out of it quickly. “People would be preferring open areas, beaches, less populated cities, mountains as compared to crowded places like for example Dubai, NYC, Bangkok.”
Hamdani is hopeful that there could be a strong opportunity for Pakistan’s secluded northern areas once this pandemic is over, mainly due to the increasing preference for travelling to secluded areas, which will, in turn, create opportunities for local travel bloggers.
“Pakistan will probably not be hit by this,” he concludes.
The writer is a staff member