Last December, Hollywood actor Armie Hammer arrived in Saudi Arabia for a music festival in Riyadh, the gulf kingdom’s capital. A day after the event, in a breathless Instagram post, he compared the festival to “Woodstock in the 1960’s,” his desert surroundings notwithstanding.
Joining him were a mix of A–C-list celebrities like model Sofia Richie and actor Ryan Phillippe, along with a large group of Western travel bloggers. They had been flown out and, in some instances, paid to attend the festival, called MDL Beast. The event, put on by the country’s General Entertainment Authority, a body created by royal decree in 2016, is one of the flashiest examples of influencer marketing ever. In this case, the product they were meant to market was leisure travel to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom ruled by an Islamic monarchy.
The Instagram posts coming out of the festival looked more Coachella than Sharia. Model Jourdan Dunn smized in boxer braids in front of a neon backdrop; Hammer and Phillippe wore traditional checkered kaffiyeh headscarves with their fleeces. “So grateful to be in a country I’ve never experienced before,” wrote Olivia Culpo. “I’ve changed my name to Habib Aoki,” wrote DJ Steve Aoki (also unable to resist the kaffiyeh).
The timing of MDL Beast drew particular attention: It took place just over a year after the infamous government-perpetrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia is a hyperbolic example, because its budget is bigger, monarchy more absolute, internal politics more extreme, and reputation more notorious than most other nation-states. But in recent years, travel influencers, Instagrammers, YouTubers, and bloggers have chased clout in a number of countries with notably severe authoritarian regimes and egregious human rights records, including Syria, North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, and China. The content that influencers make in these places shows up directly on millions of individual feeds, giving it an air of authenticity, as if each influencer can reveal the “real” North Korea or Syria or Xinjiang in their posts, and it’s potentially more effective than traditional promotional channels like billboards or anodyne, alliterative “visit our country” TV spots. But while the coronavirus pandemic has briefly jammed up the travel industry’s perpetual motion machine, it’s unclear whether the travel influencer model will maintain its hold on the imaginations of an increasingly wary audience.
As for the Saudi festivalgoers, at least, the public outcry was swift.
How could these influencers, demanded their critics, accept a free trip from a repressive monarchy that jails and tortures activists, oppresses its religious minorities, and fuels the worst humanitarian crisis in the world in Yemen? The cognitive dissonance was just too extreme.
Until recently, visiting Saudi Arabia outside of religious pilgrimages wasn’t very easy. But with its newly minted tourist visa program, the influencer model has quickly gone mainstream inside the kingdom, according to Nelleke Van Zandvoort-Quispel. A Dutch-Australian businesswoman, she runs Gateway KSA, a tourism NGO partnered with a former head of Saudi intelligence. The NGO operates with a mission similar to Vision 2030, the ambitious economic modernization program of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “A lot of Saudi government entities are inviting influencers now,” said Zandvoort-Quispel, who is currently based in Hong Kong.
Zandvoort-Quispel said her initiative laid the groundwork for the swell in Saudi influencer content we see today. “We started doing influencer programs two years ago, simply because we wanted to garner some attention and market what we were doing,” she said. Gateway KSA’s bread and butter is small-group trips for students at universities like Harvard and Oxford, who come to learn more about subjects like the oil industry and geopolitics from experts inside the kingdom.
But back when the programs began, Zandvoort-Quispel felt that tapping the influencer market might create a virtuous cycle and draw more attention to their programming in general. “We wanted travel influencers specifically, and not just random bloggers, and we wanted to expose them to new environments,” she said. The nearly two dozen influencers they invited over the last few years got to try their hand at falconry, camp in the desert, become sword guys, ride camels, dive, and more.
“A lot of time was taken up by ‘getting the shot’,” she admitted.
Influencer travel marketing works, for the most part, by providing all-expense-paid trips or stays for celebrities, bloggers, or social media stars with large followings, in exchange for posts about their experience. This direct channel has been a game changer for countries with PR problems: They can leverage the popularity of influencers to garner positive attention, rather than rehabbing their images through overt or heavy-handed propaganda.
The influencer marketing industry is still on the rise and had been expected to grow by nearly $10 billion in 2020, according to a March report from Influencer Marketing Hub. Travel influencers made up 5% of Instagram’s total sponsored posts in July 2019, according to analytics firm InfluencerDB. The industry watchdog account Diet Prada reported that MDL Beast influencers were paid “six-figure” sums to attend the festival.
Despite this, several prominent influencers turned down the MDL Beast trip on ethical grounds, including American actress Emily Ratajkowski and American model Teddy Quinlivan. Quinlivan, who is transgender, said on her Instagram story: “If you have any semblance of journalistic integrity, maybe it might be a cute idea not to take money from foreign governments that, um, I don’t know, openly kill and assassinate journalists [and] LGBTQ+ people. Suppress women’s rights, suppress religious rights – I mean the list of shit goes on.”
“Every traveler has an obligation to think about the ethical consequences of their trip. … But it is even more critical for influencers because they are such important role models, especially for young people,” said Dr. Ulrike Gretzel, who researches technology and social media marketing at the University of Southern California. “Uncritically spreading political propaganda is unethical under all circumstances and especially in the form of branded content, where the lines are very blurry, and the audience might therefore not recognize it as such.”
For the people running travel influencer accounts — many of whom earn their income through paid content and sponsored posts — the ethics of accepting sponsored trips can be just as blurry. While the Instagram posts and YouTube videos that emerge from their visits to less-traveled countries are not journalism, content creators nevertheless take on some functions of journalists, especially in an age where traditional foreign correspondence is vanishing. Their content is not unlike the gonzo journalism of outlets like Vice in its early years — which once did a lot of consequential journalism simply by going to hard-to-reach places — but without the expectation of fact checks or impartiality.
“Influencers also need to be aware that they will likely see a lot of Potemkin villages and will probably not have a lot of freedom during their trips,” said Gretzel. She added that they also must weigh the need to be “authentic toward their audience” against the desire to post something critical that could get them in hot water with a foreign government. “Many influencers are not trained professionals like journalists and might not know how to negotiate such difficult decisions and how to find ways to communicate controversial information,” she said.
In 2016, a British YouTuber named Louis Cole posted vlogs about his (independently funded) trip to North Korea to his nearly 2 million subscribers and, predictably, received considerable critical backlash. Cole pleaded ignorance: “I am not an investigative journalist. I don’t really do political commentary… I can only share with you guys what I experienced.” But, given that ordinary journalism from North Korea is nearly impossible, perhaps he and other travel influencers who get a chance to visit have a moral imperative to present some critical information about a country that remains a black box to foreign media.
American travel blogger Matt Kepnes, who goes by the moniker “Nomadic Matt” on his website, said he has chosen not to engage in influencer marketing or sponsored content. Kepnes, who started his website in 2008, has one of the oldest and highest-trafficked blogs in the field and focuses on budget and long-term travel. He said North Korea crosses his personal “red line” for no-go tourist destinations.
“People are not always their governments, so, for me, as long as money is not going toward a [repressive] government, that’s all right. But I won’t go to North Korea because all your money goes directly to the Kim regime, and it’s impossible to travel there without doing so,” Kepnes said. He adds Saudi and Chinese authorities to that list too. “But if I could go to Saudi Arabia or China on my own dime, that’s a different story.”
With any trip to a lesser-visited country, even a sponsored one, there’s the potential of finding unique insight about its people or society that can’t be seen from the outside.
“Opening up to travel influencers is therefore, per se, not a bad thing because it can lead to more travel to a region and, with that, hopefully, more opportunities to expose injustice,” said Gretzel. “If the influencer has the freedom to form and communicate a personal opinion, then such trips could make them important ambassadors for change.”
That change is evident in Pakistan, a populous democracy with a fluctuating security status, which gets far less tourism than neighboring India. In recent years, Western travel influencers, including the American YouTuber Drew Binsky and Facebook and Instagram star Alyne Tamir (aka “Dear Alyne”), have made splashy trips there, posting stunning photos from places like Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque and the Karakoram Highway. It’s not a coincidence, exactly: Pakistan’s National Tourism Coordination Board actively courted Western bloggers in 2019 in a bid to change the country’s public face, given that media coverage about it has been dominated for close to two decades by the war on terror.
Pakistan rolled out the red carpet to those who accepted the invite. Polish travel blogger Eva zu Beck partnered with a government initiative called Emerging Pakistan and with Pakistan International Airlines to visit in 2019 and was rewarded with an audience with the prime minister. She later produced a video that got over 1 million views, positing that the country could become the “#1 Travel Destination in the World.” And in some ways, her social media blitz worked: Forbes named Pakistan among its top 10 “under the radar” destinations for 2020, as did Condé Nast Traveller for 2021. Local press and authorities instantly bragged about their PR coup. The sight of Pakistan in any Western travel magazine would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.
Other Western bloggers who followed zu Beck’s footsteps were greeted with a very different Pakistan than what ordinary foreign tourists experience: Canadian blogger Rosie Gabrielle was granted permission to take a 3,500-kilometer motorcycle road trip through the country. Gabrielle and zu Beck either glossed over or never experienced the litany of bureaucratic problems, harassment, and occasional safety threats that many un-sponsored tourists complain about. In fact, this white influencer blitz may have created unrealistic, and even dangerous, expectations for the average traveler to Pakistan, argues Filipina American travel blogger Alex Reynolds.
Reynolds, who has visited Pakistan six times and maintains that it is “the most hospitable of all the [60-plus] countries I’ve ever encountered,” argues that overblown influencer and blogger coverage has underplayed the risks that remain for the average leisure traveler: harassment by security agencies, hours-long detentions, mandatory security escorts, and more. Plus, she notes, as a nonwhite traveler who often passes as Pakistani, she rarely receives the same red carpet treatment and barrage of free stuff that other bloggers post about. She calls this Pakistan’s “gora complex,” the colonial hangover whereby white people are put on a high pedestal, unlike nonwhite people or actual Pakistanis and people of Pakistani descent, who make up the majority of travelers to the country.
In this light, the content created by people like zu Beck is not merely benign course-correction but full of potentially dangerous omissions. She has rarely used her platform to reflect on aspects of the country’s abysmal human rights record, even when she got rare permission to visit restive provinces like Balochistan, the site of a long-running separatist insurgency.
Reynold’s criticism is not actually a dig at Pakistan’s tourism campaign but a call to action for the Pakistani agencies, whom she says could benefit from realistically acknowledging obstacles for the average visitor and changing policies on the ground (like advising police to stop harassing out-of-town visitors) rather than leapfrogging to fantastical influencer content. But airing/delivering this message got her kicked out of presenting at a tourism summit in Pakistan — which is why she explained all of this, directly to her followers, on YouTube.
As one of the last pre-pandemic influencer events, Saudi Arabia’s MDL Beast festival may have been the death knell for travel influencing. Due to some combination of naiveté and hubris, it attracted both unusually prominent celebrities (instead of semifamous bloggers) and mainstream media criticism. The scale of the spectacle may have accelerated some ongoing trends. Last year, the analytics company InfluencerDB found that Instagram influencers “have seen their engagement rates hover near all-time lows,” and engagement rates for sponsored posts fell from 4% in 2016 to just 2.4% during the first quarter of 2019.
This combination of lower engagement and more sophisticated demands for accountability probably means that the straightforward phase of influencer travel is out the door. Two years after the launch of Gateway KSA, Zandvoort-Quispel said the NGO has “backed away” from its influencer trips and is back to focusing full-time on the educational exchanges. “We got the attention we’re looking for,” she said, as if speaking of the distant past.
Lower engagement on travel influencer content could indicate a savvier audience. Another study last year from YouGov and BPG Group of 1,000 Saudi and Emirati millennials found that 73% could tell if content was paid for, and 59% were “less likely to trust an influencer review” of sponsored content. If people can recognize and therefore mistrust influencer content, it will eventually be just as transparent as old-school propaganda, but it will also leave a messaging vacuum.
The next frontier in influencer marketing is for more organic, less obviously produced, and perhaps even more nuanced content — imagine a country staging interactions between influencers and (carefully vetted) dissidents or activists to suggest that the country is taking human rights concerns seriously. This may also dovetail with boutique sponcon, whereby large-scale influencers and outright celebrities are sidelined in favor of niche micro-influencers who reach specific audiences. The InfluencerDB study found that, while engagement with Instagram influencers with over 10,000 followers held steady worldwide, the highest growth was found among those with followings of just 1,000–5,000.
This prompted me to check something: At the time of writing, I have 1,245 Instagram followers.
Just one month before the random collection of celebrities touched down in Riyadh for MDL Beast, I posted my own Saudi Instagrams, taken at a location known as “the Edge of the World.” I hadn’t realized the desert cliffs were becoming a cliché — the location tag is now populated with classic influencer shots — when I visited on the recommendation of my hotelier. I had traveled to the country alone, taking advantage of a long-awaited tourist visa. I felt extremely safe as a young woman and had a great time, genuinely moved by sights like the Gate of Mecca, which I still revisit in my camera roll.
But the only photos of me are from the desert, because my tour guide insisted on taking them, and those are the ones I posted. When I did so, I felt a frisson of excitement, from both sheer novelty — no one I knew had yet gone to Saudi Arabia as a nonreligious tourist — and connotations of risk and adventure. I didn’t take any Saudi government money to visit, which is important, but I still felt at several points in the kingdom, in Armie Hammer’s words, that “What I just witnessed was truly special.”
Part of the schadenfreude of the MDL Beast dustup was the satisfaction that “we” would never do something like that; if we were rich celebrities, we would know better than to take a free trip from a repressive regime. Perhaps. But influencers live and post on the same platforms as we do, and as their models evolve and diversify, all of us who post must acknowledge that there is a little bit of the influencer in us too. My post from Saudi Arabia is still up.