Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

A Pakistani man takes a selfie photo with Canadian ‘social media influencer’ Rosie Gabrielle, center, as she attends the Pakistan Tourism Summit in Islamabad. (AFP)
Updated 24 April 2019
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Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

  • Cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential
  • The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches

ISLAMABAD: They are young, Western, and full of praise for Pakistan: Travel influencers have moved in on the “land of the pure,” but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are irresponsible and sell an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country.
As security improves, cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential, with the government claiming it has eased visa restrictions for many foreign visitors.
The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches, as well as its rich heritage and history, from ancient Indus civilizations to Buddhist shrines and Islamic monuments.
“Pakistan, it was the trip of a lifetime,” food and travel YouTuber Mark Wiens told his four million subscribers.
Polish blogger Eva zu Beck informed her followers it could “become the number one tourist destination in the world,” while Canadian social media influencer Rosie Gabrielle said she wanted her stories to “tell the truth” about the country.
But there are concerns influencer content does not reflect the major challenges, from infrastructure to extremism, that Pakistan is facing as it embraces modern tourism.
Zu Beck, whose clip was even shared by officials, cites government commerce initiative Emerging Pakistan, as well as Pakistan International Airlines as partners she’s worked with, while Wiens credits tourism expo Pakistan Travel Mart for “making the amazing trip happen.”
Gabrielle says her 3,500-kilometer motorcycle trip across the nation was facilitated by a Pakistani association in Oman.
Once seen as an essential stop on the hippie trail, visitor numbers have slumped since the 1970s when the country first underwent sweeping Islamization then descended into a bloody battle with militancy.
Deadly attacks still occur but security concerns are easing, so authorities and businesses are keen to shake the perception it is a hostile and dangerous place.
They are enthusiastic that so-called social media “influencer” advertising, which generally provides glossy snapshots rather than in-depth investigation, can present an alternative vision of Pakistan to a new generation of young and adventurous travelers.
“People believe them,” says Pakistan Travel Mart CEO Ali Hamdani, who helped set up Wiens trip, adding that bloggers’ impressions are regarded as “authentic.”
Yet Pakistanis and seasoned foreign travelers warn such posts on social media do not paint a full and honest picture of Pakistan.
Tourism infrastructure is severely underdeveloped, there are opaque government restrictions on places foreigners can visit, and travelers are often harassed — whether by men bothering women in a patriarchal society; or suspicious intelligence officials detaining curious sight-seers or insisting on security escorts.
“All this ‘Everything is wonderful in Pakistan’ is just irresponsible,” reveals June, an indignant 51-year-old Briton who declined to give her last name, she had been harassed by a police officer during a visit to the northwestern Swat valley.
Influencers are shielded from many issues that ordinary visitors face, adds Zara Zaman, an attendee at a recent tourism summit in Islamabad.
“All of these travelers are also traveling with crews and are protected by more powerful people,” she argues.
Hamdani, for example, acted as a driver for both Wiens and another influencer, Trevor James, during their visits, smoothing out any issues.
Zu Beck and Gabrielle, were able to visit the southwestern province of Balochistan — famed for its spectacular scenery, but also for violent insurgencies, which means few foreigners are able to visit without the blessing of intelligence agencies.
What influencers publish “doesn’t represent the real experience,” warns Alexandra Reynolds, an American blogger on her fifth trip to Pakistan, adding that there is a risk that less experienced travelers will be misled by such content and potentially end up in trouble.
“In a time when Pakistan’s international reputation is so fragile, it is not something that should be risked,” the 27-year-old explains, revealing that she too experienced harassment from security forces during a previous trip.
Another tourist Sebastiaan, 30, says he was detained for 14 hours and questioned by suspicious government agents in the southern city of Mithi last September.
There is also frustration from Pakistanis that Western bloggers have been feted by authorities, while locals with better cultural understanding — especially of sensitive issues such as gender or blasphemy — are sidelined.
“It kinds of makes me angry to have white people represent us. We are not completely done with our post-colonial hangover,” says Zaman.
At the tourism summit a group of the Western bloggers were widely photographed meeting Imran Khan, with no local travel influencers in sight, prompting a backlash on social media.
Despite concerns, the bloggers remain enthusiastic.
Zu Beck, 27, has gained a huge following in Pakistan, where a local phone company has sponsored some of her videos.
She insists: “My job is not to love Pakistan. My job is to make content. But I love Pakistan.”


Saudi entrepreneur aims to revive Al-Balad

Saudi entrepreneur Abdullah Al-Hodaif has been passionate about art all his life. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 26 May 2019
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Saudi entrepreneur aims to revive Al-Balad

  • Abdullah Al-Hodaif’s passion for art has led him to invest in a wide range of cultural projects

JEDDAH: Thirty-two-year-old Saudi entrepreneur Abdullah Al-Hodaif has been passionate about art all his life. He started collecting paintings in his warehouse when he was only six years old. By the time he was 16, his warehouse was filled with vintage art pieces.
After attaining his master’s degree from abroad, he was inspired by Saudi Vision 2030 upon his return to the Kingdom.
Today, Al-Hodaif has redecorated four buildings in Jeddah’s popular tourist attraction, Al-Balad.
They house Bait Al-Hodaif, a non-profit art organization, and include a small museum that consists of 14 rooms and displays items from the 1910s to the 1980s: artwork, photographs, newspapers and magazines, and nostalgic games such as Carrom, currencies from different Arab countries and more.
“It displays old Hejazi interiors, visitors can see how kitchens used to be, an old Majlis and games, televisions, newspapers. People can even host events there,” Al-Hodaif told Arab News.
Bait Al-Hodaif creates annual campaigns to redecorate the streets of Jeddah with graffiti and different artwork. Last Ramadan, they created eight projects in districts such as Al-Karantina, Al-Petromin and Al-Aziziyah.

BACKGROUND

• Bait Al-Hodaif’s mission is to promote Saudi art culture.

• The buildings of his projects are over 200 years old.

• Values: beauty, peace, kindness, giving, persistence and love.

• Bait Ziryab was named after Iraqi composer Ziryab.

• 90% of Bait Ziryab’s students are female.

“In the poorer areas, we created artwork in different districts and held recycling workshops for children. The aim of the artworks on the wall is to create a cheerful image for the children, for them to see one of their favorite cartoon characters on the wall,” Al-Hodaif told Arab News.
“We worked under seven values: Beauty, peace, kindness, giving, persistence and love. We paint the language of love and peace on the walls.
“This year, we created a project called Arbab Al-Jamal to beautify areas in Al-Balad — as seen on the roof of Al-Hodaif Museum — for all of Ramadan. The goal is to complete 11 artworks by the end of Ramadan.”
Al-Hodaif Museum consists of six floors and is one of the tallest buildings in Al-Balad.
“It offers weekly art workshops and classes for pottery, sketching and other forms of art. It also hosts events on a monthly basis, be they cultural, poetic, cinematic or musical.”
The museum also houses contemporary art. “I want the youth to come to historic Jeddah, not to see something old. Visitors have seen plenty of that. What I want to do is bring them through modern art and something new. The youth don’t want to see an old car or an old radio, they want to see art, but I want to show them art in a historic site.”
Al-Hodaif’s goal is not to bring back the past.

HIGHLIGHtS

• Provide a service that supports the thriving art scene in Saudi Arabia.

• Discover and support local artists and showcase their work locally and internationally.

• Provide the space and equip the artists with the appropriate resources to work.

• Instill values of peace through art.

• Offer educational workshops and courses to develop the skills of young talents.

“We combined the modern with the old. We are very much with the present times,” said Al-Hodaif.
Bait Ziryab is a music school that teaches Arabic music and promotes Arabic music culture. It offers lessons in Arabic instruments such as the oud, qanun and ney, and also offers lessons in Western instruments such as the piano.
“It was named after the most famous musician in Andalusia, Iraqi composer Ziryab, who migrated to Andalusia and was the first to open a music school that teaches the oud in Andalusia, and he taught the daughters of kings,” he told Arab News
Al-Hodaif established Arbab Al-Heraf, a platform that promotes the art and culture of Saudi Arabia, with a branch in Al-Balad and another in Al-Basateen district.