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Travel influencer: “Everyone in India believes in the 9 to 5. I could not put up with that”

Being a travel influencer sounds like the ideal job. You get to travel to exotic locations. You take a bunch of photos and post them on social media. And you get paid. What’s not to like? The reality, however, can be quite different from perception. Being a content creator isn’t quite as easy as some people think and it can often lead to burnout, with many social media users not fully appreciating the amount of work that goes into being an influencer. Travel and work combined, however, is an appealing prospect, exemplified by the rise in digital nomadism and more countries offering digital nomad visas. We spoke to Pooja, a native of Mumbai, India who’s based in Mexico to learn about the ups and downs of digital nomad life and being a growing travel influencer.

Hi Pooja, thanks for speaking with us. Could you give us an overview of what you do?

Pooja: Sure. I used to work as a graphic designer in a design studio and then as a freelancer. When I got more projects where I could work remotely, I thought why not travel? So I started traveling, then went back home for a bit and then again I kept traveling. I moved around Asia, then I made my way to Mexico and I decided that I wanted to move here more permanently, like semi-permanently. This could be my ‘home base’ on this side, and also India because I have family there. So I work out of Mexico but I work with clients in Germany, Japan and Bali.

What is it about being a full-time traveler or digital nomad that attracted you?

Pooja: Everyone in India believes in the 9 to 5 mentality to the point that anything that you do beyond it is strange and weird, and you’re sort of an outsider. And also of course my parents wanted me to be close to them and settle down and have a normal life. I could not. I felt suffocated in that sort of living. I could not put up with that. I’ve always enjoyed traveling since I was a kid. And the more people told me, “You can’t travel alone, you’re a girl, how can you be by yourself?”, it made me want to do the opposite. And it worked in my favour most of the time because I did go to see places and meet people that I never would have otherwise if I was sitting in my parents’ house in Mumbai.

So travel is a way of fighting against that suffocation and pressure.

Pooja: For sure. I also get very restless and I thought about why I need to move so much. I think it’s a form of expression and it’s also maybe a mild form of escapism. It’s not that I don’t want to deal with real life. It’s not like I am on the streets, not making a living or anything like that. But I just had to escape from being grounded in one place. And of course the anxiety of being told what to do and wanting to go against it; all of that adds a very big push to it. But of course I love traveling. I love seeing new things and I also love photography. So a blend of all of it made me want to move constantly.

You’re a growing influencer on Instagram. Why do you think people are following you?

Pooja: So actually it’s changed quite a bit. Initially when I started posting photos, when I went to Japan for the first time, people were just so curious. How is this Indian girl traveling by herself? So most of my audience were people from India or even solo female travelers who wanted to travel but couldn’t, and wanted inspiration. And on the other side there were people who loved the kind of photos that I took of Japan, which was very cyberpunky and neon. That was my audience. But with changes in the past few years, the algorithm has been all about Reels and videos. I never did any of that. But I adapted. My last reel that I posted last week has 5,000 likes. That’s why I have like 200 followers more in a week. I’m adapting to what Instagram wants from me, and I’m trying to do it in my way without completely transforming what I want to show my audience.

In terms of traveling by yourself, did you have any hesitations?

Pooja: For sure. I was terrified that I would spend all my money and I would not have a way to come back home. And my parents were supportive in the sense that they told me that if something happens, and you need us to book a flight, we’ll book it for you and you’ll be back home safe. So it was nice to have that safety net. Otherwise my finances, I knew that I could not go out in a Michelin star restaurant in Tokyo just because it looked good. I had to survive on 7-Eleven. So I budgeted in a way that let me stay in Japan for the first three months while I tried to see if this life was for me. And before I even went there I tried to make connections. I volunteered most of the places so I didn’t have to spend money on accommodation. I tried to find clients. I would send them my portfolio and ask them just to meet me for coffee. And I got quite a bit of work that way. Even if it wasn’t something that I still am working on, in the moment it paid me enough to continue traveling around Japan for three months. So it helps to just have some sort of a plan. Have a backup plan on top of it and of course I saved up for three years before even doing that trip. So I did think it through and I don’t like the idea of just quit your job and leave.

Would you even consider being an influencer full-time?

Pooja: I would love to create content for hotels and beautiful places and tourism boards, and that’s actually what I’m moving towards now. So I’ve cut down my graphic design work to 25% and I’m focusing more on creating content, first with blogging then my YouTube channel and then focusing of course on Instagram continuously because I already have some sort of audience there. It is something I want to do full-time and I have been struggling with finding a way to be authentic while doing that, and that’s why I haven’t pushed it completely. Because a lot of times I know what I can do to get the audience and get views, but I know that it’s not me. So I’m still trying to navigate through it. But that’s my plan.

What does the term ‘influencer’ mean to you? For many people there’s a negative association, people getting paid to take photos and silly dances, stuff like that. And if we’re going by the industry definition of someone who has a sizable following, you are an influencer. Do you consider yourself one?

Pooja: So that’s actually what I wanted to tell you at the start, that I don’t like using the word influencer for myself. I prefer to say that I’m an inspirer. I like to inspire people to visit new places, to not be paranoid about safety all the time, not be paranoid about all the worst case scenarios. And I want to inspire people instead of influence. When brands message me, they always say, “Hey, we’re looking for a nano influencer and would you be interested in looking at our products?”, but that’s not me. I would not want to influence someone’s decision to do something so that I can gain monetary compensation. I would instead inspire them to visit places that I visit.

And it sounds like you’ve been doing that.

Pooja: There’s this girl who’s been following me since I started and she messages me every time I post about how she’s in a small town in India, and every time I post, she takes a screenshot and prints it out and then she puts it on a bulletin board. And she’s like, this is what I want to be, this is what I want my life to be. And that’s exactly what I would want people to feel from my posts.

Great that you’re having a positive impact on someone. So aside from the inspirational content that you like to make, what kind of stuff are tourism boards asking you to make?

Pooja: So I started off approaching locally where I live in San Miguel. There are tons of hotels and during the pandemic, they were all trying to renovate. So I would go to them and tell them that I can help you with your graphic design or I can do drone shots or I can do Reels videos. What would you like? And a lot of them said yes. We want to use stuff for our website and social media but we don’t want to be giving you free stays and stuff like that. We want to pay you but we want full credits for it. So that’s sort of the vibe that I’ve been getting from most of the people that approach me so far. Probably because I’m not big enough to be able to say I’m going to give you a shout out in exchange for a free stay. Instead of that, they prefer to have the content themselves. All the original files and everything is theirs and they just pay me for it.

You mentioned that Instagram has really made a shift towards video. Google has these core updates in which website rankings are doing well one day and then disappear entirely. Do you feel it’s something that you have to keep on top of? Does it affect your income?

Pooja: For sure it does. At least the website does. Because now I’m starting to make some money with Google Ads, and Google had an update a few months ago when everyone’s traffic dropped 90% lower than it used to be. They’re trying to do something with Search Console, SEO. They’re trying to do various things. And for me to be aware of all of that while doing graphic design, while doing writing, while doing content creation, it’s impossible. I’m actually at the point where I’m considering hiring someone who can take care of the algorithm updates and tell me what I should be doing, and when. Just so that I don’t constantly have to chase. There are updates everywhere. Sometimes the Instagram Head will say something like use only 5 hashtags, and then the social media Creators team on Instagram said no, continue using 30. It’s ok. We will still push that. So it’s very confusing. I never know what’s the right thing to do.

So you’d consider hiring someone to advise you not just about Google’s algorithm, but also algorithms of other social media platforms.

Pooja: Exactly, yes. I’m thinking if I double my income in a couple of months, that’s exactly what I would want to do because it’s impossible to keep up to date with all of these platforms. All of them have something new happening every week.

Have you ever posted something, maybe you just thought it would be a regular photo or video, and the reaction wasn’t great from your audience?

Pooja: For sure. Constantly. Actually it’s funny. I’m a vegetarian and I have a section on my blog where I promote vegetarian restaurants and animal rescues and stuff like that. So every time I post something about animals and animal rescue centres, I get hate. I get hate from people who have no idea what I’m talking about and they think every rescue centre is a zoo, and the animals are treated cruelly. Another influencer commented on my reel and she posted it on her story saying, look how people promote… something about elephants in Thailand. It’s a rescue centre I worked with and I know they’re authentic and they need the money. So I said this is something that you should definitely consider visiting. They’re very humane, they don’t do this, that. But she chose to ignore all of it and she posted it. And then people sent me messages saying, do you know what those people do to elephants and do you know what kind of zoos they are? And I’m just like, no. It’s not a zoo. If you know exactly what I’m talking about, you would know it’s not true. On the other side, every time I post about being a vegetarian, I don’t shove it down people’s faces. But I just say, okay, top five restaurants that I’ve tried in El Salvador that had vegetarian food. And people are like, what’s wrong with meat eaters? Do you hate us? I was just like, no. It’s nothing to do with you. I’m just trying to tell the people who follow me for my vegetarian recommendations that El Salvador also has places where you can eat without you starving if you’re a vegetarian.

It seems almost inevitable to experience some form of backlash as an influencer. Does it make you want to withdraw from social media or can you just brush it off?

Pooja: The first time it happened, the elephant one I was telling you about, it got me down super bad. I was told it’s normal, it happens. But I was almost in tears. How can people be so mean when I’m trying to promote something good? I didn’t post for a month after that because I was just so upset. After that I would rethink every single thing I would post and it sort of gave me paralysis by analysis. I was analysing things so much that I would just not post, because I was like, oh, what if I talk about expensive restaurants and someone on a budget would be like, how dare you go to expensive restaurants! I went through that phase for a couple of months. Now I don’t care. Now it doesn’t affect me.

Where do you think the hate comes from? Maybe jealousy of your lifestyle?

Pooja: It’s jealousy and it’s also just plain cyberbullying. You can be behind a phone and a computer, and say whatever you want and feel powerful. A lot of people go that route.

From your experience have you found any particular platform to be the most friendly?

Pooja: Pinterest. At least for mental health, it’s amazing because nobody would ever say something like that on Pinterest. They’re there for beautiful images, getting inspired, going to your website and moving on. They won’t spend time in fighting with you or trying to get on your nerves. People don’t do that.

Pinterest has a predominantly female user base. I wonder if that’s got something to do with it.

Pooja: Probably. Actually I get more hate from women than from men. Men actually like my work because it’s purely photography and they think, oh it’s so nice, we’re inspired. But the women are always agitated. Even when I promote my products, I have to make a living. I want to monetize my work. I print really gorgeous artworks. And they’re like, why are you trying to sell yourself out? I’m just like, I’m not selling myself out. I’m just selling my photograph.

Given the rise of short form content over the past few years, do you see yourself transitioning into that more?

Pooja: If not just focusing on short form, I would at least transform my still images to a collage of photographs. I’ve seen that works well. Or some sort of way to integrate the photography with videos instead of completely abandoning it. I do like videos and I’m even thinking of upgrading to a better camera so I can make better videos, but I prefer doing videos for YouTube where I would be able to explain things and give information to the extent that people are actually paying attention and they’re there for a reason, and not just scrolling up and down on Instagram. I don’t see myself completely doing just videos, but yeah, I would have to make the switch somewhere.

How about a move to TikTok?

Pooja: I have been trying to get on TikTok for about a year. It’s a very stupid reason that I don’t want to get on TikTok. It’s because it’s cringey. There’s some stuff that is not my vibe at all and I don’t want to be on a platform that promoted those kind of trends and dances. But I do think if I have to give in and actually become a full-time travel blogger, influencers, inspirer or whatever, I would have to get on TikTok. So it’s something I’m avoiding but I know that in the near future I will have to adapt.

Among influencers there appears to be an issue with authenticity. You can act a certain way or pose in a certain way on Instagram, and that can almost be considered as a sure-fire way to get likes. There are people who do some pretty crazy stuff on YouTube. Do you feel a pressure to strip yourself of your authenticity?

Pooja: For sure. But I feel like I moved past it in the last year or so because when I first started with this, I saw that if I put up a picture of my face with my artwork and my print, people buy it versus if it’s just a picture of an artwork. That’s not because they’re not interested in my work but they just want to see the person behind the photograph, and that I’m happy to do. But if there’s a video of me walking towards the sunset and then moving past something else and then it’s a collage of something else, that gets more views than just a video of a sunset. I’m happy to do some of those if it doesn’t completely make me uncomfortable but I could never… I have friends, very dear friends in the travel influencer community who even do dances in different places, that kind of thing. It works great for them and they’re comfortable doing that. Maybe because I have the second career of being a graphic designer and I know that I won’t go broke if I don’t do those things and I lose some of that audience, I feel comfortable avoiding it. But I went through that whole pressure for a year when I was like, maybe I need to just start dancing. But no, I didn’t end up doing it.

Some people think it’s easy work to be an influencer. You just have to take a photo. But there’s a lot of work involved. From your experience what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding? And also with regards to being a digital nomad, there’s a lot of stuff out there that glorifies it. You can hang out at the beach with your laptop and earn $10,000 a week!

Pooja: There are 2 parts to my audience. One part that believes that all my trips are paid by a man, whether that’s my father or my boyfriend or my husband or someone invisible who pays for all of it. They refuse to believe that I’m actually working for them [my trips]. So every time I post, okay, next week I’m going to Bali for a month, give me your recommendations; so many people will be like, haha, did your daddy get a big bonus? I avoid all those questions but I’ve seen that happen a lot of times. The other misunderstanding is on the extreme end where it’s like, you make $10,000 a week! It’s nothing for you. Bali is like the cheapest place on the planet. I’m just like, no I don’t make that much. I would love it. I hope someday I can. But a digital nomad doesn’t mean that you’re investing in crypto and make thousands the next day when you wake up. It doesn’t work like that at all. So my audience is divided and I always try to not educate but at least clarify those things once in a while, and I post about how I’m doing what I’m doing and how much I make. But people still look at what I post and they’re like, “Nah I could do this tomorrow and I could make $10,000. I just choose not to do it.” Good for you.

But the photos you post do take a lot of work. They can’t just be done in one shot.

Pooja: Sometimes the photos I don’t plan on posting are the quickest because I’m not stressing about the lighting. I’m not stressing about things. I’m just in a nice place. I’m taking a picture for a memory. Then there are other photos. I really have to plan those. I have to see nobody’s on the street because it’s a heavy traffic road. I have to go with all my stuff and actually make sure that I look like a travel blogger, so I have to have my camera, my bag. That takes time.

There’s another perception that influencers want free stuff. They want to stay in a hotel for free just for a shout out. What are your thoughts on stuff like that? Do you think you need to actively manage that kind of perception among your audience?

Pooja: I think that perception is mostly a problem for people than the actual brands. Hotels are more than happy to have their empty rooms being taken by a travel blogger who can create content for free, versus the people who are like, “Oh, you’re so cheap. You can’t even afford a hotel. Are you broke? Are you this, are you that?” I think there’s a fine line between doing it so much to the point that every single post that you have is an ad or sponsored, versus actually having authentic opinions on things where you travel to. A lot of travelers that I used to follow are now only doing ads and only sponsored posts, and now I know that they’re getting paid or they’re getting free stuff, and that’s why they’re posting it. So I think if I maintain a balance between the free stuff versus actually what I really love, and I would only accept stuff that I would use in general… I would have to sort of not go broke while doing that but that’s something I need to find a way.

What do you think social media platforms can do to help content creators and influencers?

Pooja: I think if they somehow not monitor every comment, but at least find a way to have relevant comments on videos or actually show it to the right audience. Because a lot of times I will post something with hashtags aimed at a certain audience but it will go viral because of the audio, and it will reach a community of people who I did not intend on sharing those things with because I know they’re not tuned into that. So a lot of times when I write about being a solo traveler and feeling trapped in India, a lot of Indian men… they’re like, “How can you go against our culture? You are supposed to get married and have a kid.” It’s not for you. I’m posting this for your daughter. I’m posting this for your sister who wants to travel. Not for you. So if they made that better I think it could really help. At least reach the right audience and not just anyone.

What would you say to someone who wants to be a digital nomad like you, a travel influencer and full-time traveler? What should they keep in mind and what should they expect?

Pooja: I think the most important thing is having a backup plan. Don’t go all in into this in the first go without knowing if you have thick enough skin to put up with it. If it’s going to affect your mental health to the point that you can’t function in life, it’s not the right space for you. Because that will never get better. There will always be people who try to push you down. Maybe you won’t even make money for the first year, so have a financial backup and have very thick skin, and then get on with it. But also take risks. Being a digital nomad, it’s kind of hard to expect [financial] security. Do a cool project for free and try to get the next one as a paid one or get an accommodation exchange while volunteering somewhere. Try multiple things and then figure out what you enjoy instead of already visualizing staying in expensive hotels and working by the beach. That’s not real. That’s not real life. That’s not going to happen for a long time.

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