The dark truth behind travel influencers filming vlogs in Syria

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Jul 14, 2023 at 12:26 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

In recent years, travel influencers have been seen flocking to Syria, presenting the country through rose-tinted glasses while simultaneously downplaying the devastating effects of the ongoing war and atrocities committed by the Syrian government. Critics argue that these influencers have been contributing to a misleading narrative, portraying the country as a safe and vibrant destination while ignoring the plight of its people.

In an attempt to try and delve into this topic further, we need to first try and understand the intentions behind these travel influencers, and why they’re choosing not to capture the harsh reality of life in Syria currently.

Syria’s 20-year-long dictatorship

Syria has been marred by years of repression, violence, and controversy. Bashar al-Assad’s enduring regime has been going on for over 20 years. As the country continues to grapple with the aftermath of a brutal civil war, Assad’s leadership remains a subject of international scrutiny.

Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000, following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades. His son’s rise to power was initially met with cautious optimism, as some hoped for political reforms and a relaxation of authoritarian control. However, these hopes quickly dissipated as al-Assad consolidated his power and perpetuated his regime’s repressive practices.

Under his rule, Syria has witnessed a systematic crackdown on dissent and a disregard for basic human rights. The regime’s security apparatus—meaning all the measures that are taken to ‘protect’ it—has been responsible for widespread arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings targeting any political opponents, activists, and civilians who dared to voice their dissent. The notorious Saydnaya prison stands as a symbol of the country’s brutal tactics, with reports of mass executions and inhumane treatment of detainees.

A propaganda tool disguised as travel content

So, how (and why) are these travel influencers getting into Syria? In their quest for fame and views, content creators have been flocking to the country, eager to share a journey full of adventure and discovery. Yet, their glossy videos offer nothing more than a superficial glimpse, carefully curated to avoid any mention of the destruction and suffering that plagues the nation. It’s as if they believe showcasing a few historical landmarks and colorful markets can overshadow the deep scars left by years of conflict.

Filmed in government-controlled areas, very much like when travel bloggers find themselves taking guided tours through Pyongyang, North Korea, these videos serve as political propaganda rather than genuine travel content. They fail to showcase the widespread destruction and the dire situation faced by the Syrian population, with over 90 percent of the people living below the poverty line.

Let’s take a closer look at the stark contrast between the glamorous vlogs of travel influencers like Ben Fryer (also known as BackpackerBen on YouTube), and individuals like Mohammad Al Abdallah, who have a deep understanding of what’s really happening in Syria.

BackpackerBen, with over 200,000 subscribers on the platform, is all about showing off a breathtaking vacation. From indulging in mouth-watering street food to appraisal of the brilliant life abroad, he paints a picture of a dream destination. But where is this dreamland? Surprise, surprise, it’s Damascus, Syria. Fryer conveniently fails to cover the actual reality of the country and the heart-wrenching experiences of its people.

Now, let’s turn our attention to Al Abdallah, the founder and Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. Unlike Fryer, Al Abdallah’s stories are far less glamorous. He was imprisoned and tortured in Syria for his political beliefs, along with his father and brother who also openly opposed the al-Assad regime. Seeking safety, he became a refugee in the US, unable to return to his homeland due to the very real threat to his life. Instead of gallivanting around in exotic locales like Fryer, Al Abdallah works tirelessly to support and implement strategic visions that advocate justice for Syrians.

Another famous travel influencer is gus1thego, a Danish vlogger who finds delight in capturing Syria’s nightlife, complete with vibrant parties, beautiful women, and loud clubs because clearly, showcasing the shallowest aspects of a country’s culture is what travel vlogging is all about, right? Gus tells his viewers: Damascus has an awsome nightlife, one of the best in the Middle East,” completely tone deaf to the struggles of everyday life in this corner of the world.

While travel influencers like Fryer and gus1thego are busy basking in the pleasures of their escapist vacation vlogs, individuals like Al Abdallah are working tirelessly to shed light on the harsh realities faced by the Syrian people.

Al Abdallah, in fact, explains how many of these trips are orchestrated by the government. He argues that the footage showcased by these influencers is carefully staged and captured in specific areas of Syria, particularly in its capital city, Damascus.

These influencers are not innocent travelers who are authentically exploring the country and raising awareness. Instead, there is a striking similarity among all of their videos, as they often visit the same locations and encounter the same individuals while wandering the streets. It’s become apparent that these trips are not about promoting genuine tourism or providing an accurate depiction of the country. Rather, they serve a predetermined political agenda.

By presenting a distorted reality, these influencers unwittingly become accomplices in the regime’s propaganda machine. According to the United Nations (UN), over 306,887 civilians were killed between 1 March 2011 and 31 March 2021 in Syria due to the conflict. Moreover, more than half of those deaths were never documented by any group.

The alarming truth is that Syria has not recovered from its tragic past. Half of the country’s population was killed or displaced, with political dissidents facing persecution and imprisonment. The infamous chemical attack on the city of Douma in 2013, claiming the lives of 15,000 people, serves as a chilling reminder of the government’s attempts to cover up the atrocities committed during the war.

Some travel influencers in Syria seem to appeal to the concept of dark tourism, with the Syrian government benefitting from the influx of foreign currency brought in by these visitors. While the government profits from their spending, the Syrian people see little benefit. It is a carefully orchestrated plan for the government to omit responsibility and present a false image of normalcy.

The behaviour of certain influencers, who lack self-awareness and sensitivity, has been highly problematic. Some creators have used inappropriate titles and jokes in their content, completely disregarding the gravity of torture and the immense suffering endured by thousands in the country.

One particular travel vlogger who has contributed to this cultural insensitivity is the aforementioned influencer gus1thego. While on a trip to Syria, the vlogger filmed himself experiencing a Syrian bath and titled the video I Was Tortured In Syria… who, instead of raising awareness about the issue of torture within the country, chose to make a tasteless joke in one of his videos. He stated: ”I was tortured in Syria! We went to this hammam in Damascus, and paid around $4 each!”

It is important to acknowledge that over 14,000 individuals have tragically lost their lives due to torture in Syrian government jails since 2011. It’s completely understandable why Syrian citizens would react to this kind of video with anger and frustration.

Remake the narrative

Syria is more than just a war-torn country. It is a nation in desperate need of genuine help and support. Tourists must be mindful of the situation and engage in activities that contribute positively to the local communities and empower those affected by the ongoing war.

The portrayal of Syria by travel influencers is a far-removed depiction of the grim reality faced by its citizens. These creators, consciously or unconsciously, are contributing to the government’s propaganda machine, distorting the truth and overshadowing the suffering experienced by millions. It is crucial to expose these misleading narratives and advocate for responsible and ethical travel engagement in Syria, acknowledging the country’s complex history and the urgent need for legitimate and long-lasting support and assistance.

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