January is when the difference between the rich and the poor becomes most evident. Whereas many people face a month plagued by the three Ds — debt, divorce and doldrums — the famous tend to take off for more clement climes. Simon Cowell famously frolics at the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados at the start of each new year, and I myself have spent many January days at the Ritz-Carlton — but only the one in Tenerife, because I believe in keeping it real.
This winter, subdued British airports have also seen a mass exodus of a particular youth tribe recognisable by their bright white teeth and deep mahogany tans — the hordes of youngsters who are reality TV stars and/or create content for Instagram. And most of them are going to Dubai.
What draws them to this fiefdom, both garish and dreary, when there are so many beautiful places they could visit? It’s relatively cheap. It’s always hot. And until this week, it was on the UK’s travel corridor list, which meant there was no need to quarantine when returning home. Having little to offer but fancy hotels, Dubai wants to keep them full and craves the exposure these young people bring, even as Covid-19 cases surge (daily infection counts have nearly tripled in the past month). For unformed souls whose fragile sense of self requires ceaseless reassurance from the labels in their clothes and the bowing and scraping of other people, Dubai is perfect. Every car is a limousine and every carpet is red and everything is covered in so much gilt that it makes Versailles look like Bauhaus.
We might have rolled our eyes and trudged grimly on to work in previous Januarys — but with the shutdown of travel that came with the pandemic, watching beautiful people cavort in string bikinis while partaking of a few Sex On The Beaches has brought out the inner Mark Chapman in some stay-at-homes; not everyone gets the chance to kill a Beatle but everyone can go trolling on Twitter. The influencers — or sinfluencers, if you will, considering how many of their countrymen believe them to be wilfully flouting the law in order to indulge in heedless pleasure-seeking — are having to defend themselves from charges of prizing pleasure above all while still making their lives look wildly enviable. The answer to ‘Is your 3,400-mile trip really necessary?’ is a conclusive yes from these studs and starlets. The most audacious, who scrambled to Dubai before the UK ban on non-essential international journeys was imposed in November, have claimed to be ‘residents’ rather than tourists.
But as Coco Chanel said, ‘Elegance is refusal’, and a number of celebrities have opted for self-denial. Elizabeth Hurley, who actually would have been working in the Caribbean, cancelled her annual beachwear shoot there because ‘it didn’t seem right to be drinking banana daiquiris on the beach whilst everyone else was cooped up’.
Even better, one of my favourite reality stars, the sensational Olivia Attwood, had a right go at her crispy cohort with the fierceness which won her so many fans in Love Island and The Only Way is Essex: ‘So basically being an influencer is actually really hard and I can’t create content for you guys here at home… so I am going to have to go on holiday, but don’t worry I will keep referring to it as “work”… there is a difference between being able to earn money wherever you are, and being there for work… “I’m really stressed, do I post, do I not”… that’s not stress. People literally can’t feed their children, we are in a national situation where there are children literally starving, being given these sad little bags of food from the government… your “hard day” is creating content that might get nasty comments and someone else’s hard day is a 12-hour shift, zipping up body bags at the end of it…’
I won’t be going to Dubai, either — I went there ages ago. You can tell how long ago it was because the Guardian had enough clout to bag me two free first-class flights and two free suites at the Burj Al Arab hotel. Everything was so hi-tech that we couldn’t work out how to open the curtains until our last day. And you can also tell how long ago it was because I’m pretty sure I didn’t have the internet then. If I had, I wouldn’t have accepted hospitality from a country which practises gender apartheid and where the law punishes male homosexuality with up to ten years in jail. To be fair, Dubai’s not keen on heterosexuality either; a pair of Brits were sentenced to a month in prison for kissing in a restaurant, while thousands are cautioned by police on the beaches each year for being even moderately frisky.
There’s something surreal about Britons, notorious for their drunken licentiousness on holiday, being drawn to a country with such medieval mores. And it’s hypocritical in the extreme for nations such as Dubai to allow foreigners to drink alcohol and romp in bikinis when their own citizens have no such freedom. But these foreigners are the lucky ones — the victims are those migrant workers who spend 12-hour shifts sacrificing themselves to the monster hotels which will house the western tourists, as seen in the documentary Slaves of Dubai.
I’m not one to pillory attractive youngsters for wanting a nice life. In an age where social mobility has stalled and the dull spawn of the rich and famous nab the few enjoyable and well-paid jobs once open to bright working-class kids — actor, pop star, model, journalist — being a reality star/influencer is a sort of a gap year in thongs. It’s the poverty of imagination which sees Dubai as the ultimate foreign holiday which I dislike. In the past, the rich and famous frequented places of extreme natural beauty, as well as glitz — St Tropez, Jamaica, the Greek islands, which are far more than hotels with beaches. There’s something really odd about Generation Woke, with their constant blather about inclusiveness and being authentic, giving ceaseless publicity to a country which is neither. Still, as one of my generation sang, there’s never any shortage of customers up for a cheap(ish) holiday in other people’s misery.