“I hope the video from Syria I’m making will pleasantly surprise some of you when you see it. An incredible country with incredible people” the popular vlogger Bald and Bankrupt (3,5 million subscribers on YouTube) recently wrote on Instagram. The footage is a collection of tourist snapshots: shawarma in Homs, a visit to the Baron hotel in Aleppo, a football match of Tishreen SC and a Catholic procession in Latakia.
Bald and Bankrupt is not the first travel vlogger to tick off post-revolution Syria from his bucket list of “alternative” destinations. Other vloggers have preceded him in recent years: Drew Binsky (3,16 million subscribers on YouTube), Eva Zubeck (1,9 million subscribers on YouTube) and Jay Palfrey (1,3 million subscribers on YouTube) and more. They present themselves as innocent content creators, but their work is highly politicised.
As Assad’s forces and Russia bombed residential areas, hospitals and schools in Aleppo, northern Syria, in 2016, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism launched another propaganda campaign. Panoramic shots of vast beaches, crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean and swaying palm trees make the viewer imagine themselves in another Syria. With these images, the ministry tried to entice tourists to take a relaxing vacation in the country devastated by state terror. More staged videos of lively cities, breath taking nature and historical cultural heritage soon followed.
However, Syria is not (yet) at the top of lists of tourist destinations. The glossy advertisements have not been able to hide the contemporary image of Syria as a “war zone”. Moreover, cities that have been bombed are not considered a highlight by the average tourist.
Nevertheless, the efforts of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism do seem to be having an effect on a specific group of tourists*: the destination is gaining popularity among travel vloggers. For this group, conflict areas such as Syria are ideal to give their online identities a “boost” and sell snapshots as consumer goods to millions of followers. After all, the validity of the content is measured by the exclusivity of the experience.
Travel vloggers present themselves as innocent content creators, but their work is highly politicised. Unlike qualified journalists and correspondents, they claim to show the “real life” and the “other side” behind horrific headlines. In doing so, travel vloggers uncomfortably often follow in the footsteps of colonists of the past. The perspective they show is highly selective and solely focused on fulfilling their personal (commercial) interests: creating click worthy content.
Not all tourists are welcome in Syria. The visas are issued by the fascist Assad regime (for your information: the same regime that has displaced half of Syria’s population and made 130,000+ Syrians disappear into torture dungeons since 2011). In exchange for conditional access to this “unique” destination, vloggers strip themselves of all moral duties and a critical attitude. Once they arrive, all tourists (including vloggers) are obliged by law to be accompanied by a guide approved by the regime. Syrians know very well that these guides are mandated to act like Mukhabarat agents. Therefore, in their interaction with tourists, they will avoid politics or parrot the regimes propaganda. Thus, the Assad regime indirectly determines which lens vloggers look through. What they do and don’t get to see is by no means a coincidence, but rather a staged experience.
That is why almost every travel vlog about Syria follows a strong degree of predictability: Damascus (Ummayad mosque, traditional ice cream at Bakdash and a random bar serving Barada beer), Malloula, Homs, Krak des Chevaliers and Aleppo. Along the way, the vloggers talk to “locals” (oh hello regime-approved guide in the background!) who not coincidentally echo the propaganda of the Assad regime. The vloggers casually drop vague moralistic messages about the “nonsense” of war, without holding the Assad regime responsible. For sure, a sneer at western media and journalists for creating an “biased” and “false” image of Syria may not be missing.
A trip to Syria may provide experiences, but it requires effort and knowledge to understand their meaning within a complex political context. By stating that the war is over, the “terrorists” have been defeated and Syria is safe again, travel vloggers reinforce the regime’s propaganda. This makes their YouTube channels unintentionally effective channels to normalize the image of Syria under Assad. In doing so, vloggers drag behind them an unmistakable collateral damage of misinformation with disastrous consequences. We should hold them accountable for that.
Want to learn more about the heinous crimes of the Assad regime? Read this article in the Guardian about how two academics hunted down a Syrian war criminal. The reality that travel vloggers won’t show you.
* Travel vloggers distinguish themselves from tourists by describing themselves as travellers, but they are nothing more than tourists in denial.