Late last March, as New York shut down and I settled into confinement in my Queens apartment, I scrolled past a startling post on Instagram. “Get into a washing machine in #NY and show up at a bar?” the post read in Spanish.
I did a double take. It was a post about New York’s best “underground” bars—barely 10 days into lockdown. Even just the suggestion of a windowless backroom made me cringe, but the likes piled up by the thousands.
This wasn’t early COVID denialism. It was the start of a bizarre year of New York travel Instagram from European influencers who wouldn’t have you know that anything at all had changed. The photo was recycled from a pre-pandemic trip and posted on @molaviajar, the account of a Spanish and Polish couple with 146,000 followers. (The bar in question is Sunshine Laundromat, which was then and remains closed for the pandemic.) For months, the couple continued to post about New York like it was 2019 —tips to go up skyscrapers or explore Manhattan’s Lower East Side—without a hint of a virus or a city in turmoil.
I’m tuned into this ecosystem because I handle the Instagram account for my walking tour company and follow a handful of professional Europe-based New York Instagrammers (and dozens who hope to be). Long ago, I became numb to the very un–New York posts of ham and cheese on blueberry bagels that pass as “authentic.” These posts clearly aren’t meant for me. They’re targeted to the many Western Europeans who travel to New York—more than 5 million in 2019, according to NYC & Company.
New York is low-hanging fruit for European influencers. It’s not just the high potential for advertisers and travel perks. Many New York attractions offer generous commissions for online reservations. A click on an affiliate link that leads to a purchase of a single skyscraper observatory ticket can pay $10, at least according to a pitch I once received, and that adds up. Many social media–immersed travelers decide that Lonely Planet and travel agents are for the unsavvy. They head to Instagram for insider tips from, say, a French couple or Spanish mom just like them. And for some millennial travelers, the tips are secondary; finding places to Instagram can be the main objective.
In this business, it’s become possible with just 10,000 followers and a WordPress website to make a living from a Mediterranean village. Or, I should say, it was possible. For the most part, since March 13 of last year, the U.S. has banned nonessential travel from Europe. But these Instagrammers are a wily bunch. I need look no further than my feed, which for the past year has remained full of shots of New York skyscrapers and fire escapes from people who haven’t stepped foot in the city for at least 12 months.
Isabel Leyva, a full-time Catalan influencer (@5thconbleecker), has continued to publish, on schedule, images of a New York untouched by COVID to her 51,000 followers. The content comes from her past semiannual photo-shooting trips; she has claimed she has enough to post regularly through 2023. On the summer solstice, her feed showed Times Square full of thousands of maskless yogis. In December, as the second coronavirus wave raged in New York, her stories featured nonexistent holiday season crowds. At the end of May last year, when even outdoor dining was still banned and the Black Lives Matter protests erupted, she posted her sit-down breakfast at Tiffany’s.
What incentive do these zombie traveler accounts have to keep posting through the pandemic, when they can’t travel or earn commissions? Last June, as New York remained mostly shut down, Zach M., a 17-year-old in Cardiff, Wales, in his last year of high school, bought the Instagram account @newyorkvacay for around $420. The account had 15,000 followers. “I knew I could grow it,” he told me on Instagram Messenger. Nine months later, it’s up to 98,000.
Each day, he reposts other users’ sweeping images of the city and adds in simple, short captions that push viewers to like and comment, a formula he also used to build a Bali travel account to 200,000 followers. One of his most successful posts is of a crowded Times Square from June 2018. I asked him why he mainly uses photos that don’t show the past year. “To be honest, I don’t look into it that much,” he said. “I just choose what has the most engagement because then I know it’ll perform better on my page.”
Zach is piggybacking on the Instagram algorithm, which rewards highly visual, positive, and inspirational posts. New York, a hard-hit city abandoned by many of its wealthiest, may be recovering, but it is far from a maskless dream vacation. That doesn’t sell on Instagram, so he doesn’t post it. His endgame is simple: He plans to cash in once things reopen. He and his counterparts may not have money to make right now, but they still have an image of New York to sell, and they’ll be ready when the tourist dollars again begin to flow.
Sure, some influencers do far worse. Elma Beganovich, co-founder and chief technology officer of A&E, a digital marketing firm, ticked off a list of Instagrammers with millions of followers who suffered backlashes for actually traveling, breaking quarantines, or not wearing masks in the past year. In this sense, the European “New York” influencers are lucky to have the travel ban. “I don’t know if it would do them a favor, saying, ‘Look at me traveling around,’ ” Beganovich told me.
Even so, to the casual scroller, it’s most often not clear that the influencers are posting from Europe. When followers ask if they’re really in New York, they’ll reply that the photos are “another way to visit the city,” or note that they’ve actually been at home, as the Spanish-Polish couple did beneath the laundromat bar photo. But they still present themselves as experts of a changing city they can no longer visit or properly explain, even through Instagram filters.
There are other European influencers who do live in New York and are more likely to mix shots worthy of a tourist’s bucket list with the gritty details of the daily grind. And others have felt the weight of running tourism accounts through a pandemic and racial justice reckoning. “This is a topic that concerns me,” French influencer Viviane Pajamandy told me. In October 2019, Pajamandy quit her corporate job in Paris and moved to Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, to concentrate full time on her French-language New York and Guadeloupe travel brands. Her New York Instagram page (@welovenewyorkblog) mostly resembles other curated travel accounts: rooftop views, the Friends building, decadent desserts. Except she also posts about Black Lives Matter and her online chats with New Yorkers about race and the city during COVID.
“I sometimes post photos or information that are visually less attractive,” she said. It costs her likes, “but that’s OK. It’s the game.” (Pajamandy said her traffic and revenue had cratered in the past year, but she’s hopeful for the future.)
Many others don’t see the need to think about this at all. As Zach M.’s page shows, the travel posts really promoted by the Instagram algorithm aren’t original, up to date, or honest. They’re the sleekest and most romantic.
And visiting the city is hardly necessary to run a successful New York Instagram page anyway. “I’ve actually never been,” said Zach, whose page is gaining 2,000 followers a week. Maybe he’ll come after the pandemic and high school graduation, he said: “Companies said they’ll give me free hotel stays.”