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

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.”


Asir ‘could be hotspot for global tourism,’ say travel bloggers

Paragliding is among the attractions for thrillseekers in addition to bungee jumping, ropes course, slingshot and paintballing. (Photo courtesy: @AlsoudahSeason)
Updated 7 min 58 sec ago

Asir ‘could be hotspot for global tourism,’ say travel bloggers

  • Flower Men Festival a hit with visitors
  • Season ends Aug. 31

AL-SOUDAH: Asir province has the potential to become a hotspot for international tourism, according to bloggers who were impressed by the events and activities on offer at Al-Soudah Season. Joshua Van Alstine, who shot to fame in Saudi Arabia with his YouTube videos, said the public and private sector were taking advantage of the area’s potential and would develop it to accommodate demand.
 Van Alstine and his wife, who hails from the southwestern city of Tanomah in Asir, were driving to Abha from Riyadh and were invited to explore Al-Soudah Season.
“I loved it, I am so glad I accepted the invitation,” he told Arab News. “The best part of visiting Al-Soudah was trying out the bungee jumping.”
He also met his wife’s relatives. “We had dinner with them, they came to visit us in Al-Soudah and I gave them a tour and they really liked it. They could not believe this was happening in the region and I could not either. This is something so special, even as an American and we have had these events for years back home, this to me is something incredibly special.”
Al-Soudah has other attractions for thrillseekers in addition to bungee jumping. There is a ropes course, a slingshot, paintballing and paragliding.
Slightly more leisurely activities include trekking, cycling, enjoying performances of a local dance, and learning more about the distinctive traditions of the region’s Flower Men, a tribal group famous throughout the Kingdom for their floral crowns who live high up in the mountains.

I loved it, I am glad I accepted the invitation. The best part of visiting Al-Soudah was trying out the bungee jumping.

Joshua Van Alstine, YouTuber and blogger

“They did a great job,” said Van Alstine. “I am sure they had a lot of challenges moving up and down the mountain area into that valley. There are not that many places where you can walk into a town and see people singing, dancing and that is what happened when we visited. We walked into this old school village and people were laughing, dancing and the smell of food ... it was kind of like a barbeque.”
Travel blogger Paris Verra, who also visited Al-Soudah, said the region’s people were hospitable and welcoming. “The place is unreal, the beauty is just incredible,” she told Arab News. “Coming here I feel safe and there are many misconceptions of coming to Saudi Arabia. If people would open up there are so many great things about this country in general, especially in this region.”
Verra experienced four seasons in one hour. “I mean, it was like eating lunch in the clouds. Then there was rain, then there was thunder, and then clear blue sky ... and the Flower Men festival is on a whole different level.”
Al-Soudah Season runs until the end of the month and its programs are held across seven locations. The main area, called The Hub, is suitable for families. There is also the Kids Zone, where the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Foundation is holding educational workshops at the House of Qatt.
It is one of 11 festivals being held across the Kingdom to promote the country as a global tourist destination.
It also seeks to contribute to achieving goals within the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan, which aims to improve the quality of life, raise living standards, and create career and investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia.