Freed from pandemic restrictions, travel influencers are flocking to Syria in record numbers this year, giving fans a rare glimpse into the war-torn country.
But these creators have at the same time was criticized for normalizing President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule, with activists saying they often repeat, inadvertently or otherwise, the government’s narrative of the civil war.
For a decade it was impossible to enter Syria as a tourist, but after the fighting in the Syrian conflict subsided in 2019, adventure-seeking tourists and YouTubers revenue — until the arrival of COVID-19. Now they rush.
At least 10 major personalities, including Simon Wilson, ‘Bald and Bankrupt’ star Benjamin Rich, Janet Newenham and Gökhan Yıldırım, have visited Syria in the past 12 months alone.
In the videos, YouTubers are typically driven around Syria by car, meeting locals and visiting restaurants, markets and heritage sites in government-controlled areas such as Homs and Damascus, while taking history lessons from their guides.
Almost all content creators visiting Syria try to avoid commenting on the civil war, with most praising the Syrian people for their warmth and saying their view of the country has changed for the better. Wilson and Rich did not respond to an interview request from Insider.
“There are a lot of YouTubers trying to grow. It’s a business for them,” Ayoub Morrata, a Syrian who organizes tours for foreigners in the country, told Insider.
“Tourists are now young and mainly follow dark tourism. The government doesn’t mind YouTubers coming here, as long as everything is under control.”
“The Next North Korea”
Entry into Syria as a tourist is dependent on first obtaining a security clearance from the country’s General Directorate of Intelligence, which is only possible by purchasing travel with an agency Syrian travel.
All of these businesses need the approval of the Assad regime to operate.
In their videos, many content creators say they have not interacted with any government officials in Syria, but activists say the tours are far from free from government oversight or influence.
“Assad’s intelligence services will almost certainly control such visits,” Krystian Benedict, Syria campaign director at Amnesty International, told Insider.
“This will include advice, obvious monitoring and direct accompaniment – mainly to ensure that these bloggers present the image of Syria that the regime wants.”
Foreign tourists are allowed to choose where they want to go in Syria, as long as they stay in government-controlled areas and close to their guides, according to Morrata and Shane Horan, whose company Rocky Road Travel regularly organizes tours to Syria. .
“Some roads and towns are off limits for safety reasons and to keep us safe, but the government has no say in customer selection, route or who we interact with,” Horan said.
Citizens of several countries, including the United States, are not allowed to enter the country as tourists and the use of drones – a crucial tool of the modern travel influencer – is also prohibited.
Activists say it’s clear that many of the “guides” seen in the backgrounds of foreign YouTubers’ videos are actually Syrian government guards in civilian clothes. However, there is no clear evidence to support this claim.
—Mohamed Al Neser (النسر) (@M_Alneser) March 22, 2022
“You notice that those who visit Syria don’t move freely between areas of Syria alone, there are always intelligence operatives belonging to the Assad regime accompanying them everywhere,” said Syria-based photojournalist Fared. al-Mahlool to Insider.
“Of course, you’re being watched 24/7,” Syrian disinformation expert Sophie Fullerton told Insider.
“People on these tours may believe they are free to do whatever they want, but they are free to do whatever they want in government controlled areas: you will never see these bloggers in Idlib “, she said. , designating the region controlled by Syrian rebel groups where pro-Assad forces are accused of committing dozens of war crimes.
“Bloggers who visit Syria are not telling the truth”
It’s clear that the YouTubers who have recently visited Syria are providing a much-needed street view in a society that has been too defined by violence.
One of these content creators is Janet Newenham, who visited at the end of 2021 and whose most successful video on the country has accumulated 185,000 views.
“We never hear about the Syrian people. We only hear about the war and how serious Bashar al-Assad is,” she recently told Insider.
“I’m just trying to show my audience, which is 90% western, what Syria looks like, because they don’t know anything about it.”
Newenham said she saw no indication that her guides had anything to do with the government or Assad’s security apparatus.
Turkish YouTuber Gökhan Yıldırım, who visited in March, also told Insider he had no interaction with the government and went to Syria to learn.
“I came here with a bias, but saw a very different situation than the news,” he said.
Yıldırım and Newenham have been accused of profiting from misery or whitewashing the atrocities of the Assad regime.
Yıldırım was criticized after post a video in which he repeated a claim by his guide that a building in Homs had been destroyed “by terrorists”.
“I later found out that some of what I was told was a lie,” he told Insider, saying he later corrected the errors in his post. “I was criticized a lot in my Homs video, but I was not criticized after [the edits] because I showed the truth.
Newenham also faced criticism after he say again a similar claim by his guide that the area around a mosque in Homs was destroyed “by terrorists”.
“There are comments like ‘this is propaganda’, ‘you shouldn’t have come here’, ‘you’re showing all these Assad posters’,” she told Insider, adding that his supporters “raised nearly 10,000 euros for Syria cause after.” Unlike Yıldırım, Newenham did not edit his video after receiving the comments.
Benedict, Amnesty’s campaign manager, said: “Bloggers erasing this grim reality for a few likes and shares on social media is an incredibly insensitive form of entertainment.”
“Millions of Syrians still cannot return home because they fear being arrested, tortured and executed.
Syrian human rights activist Mohamed al-Neser told Insider that foreign YouTubers are now inadvertently “part of the public relations effort” being pushed by the Assad government.
Al-Mahlool, the photographer, said some bloggers “don’t tell the truth, but whitewash crimes and lie”.
In some cases, Amnesty’s Benedict said, YouTubers may censor themselves to avoid angering the government, as was common among foreign tourists who visited the country before the 2011 uprising that preceded the war. civil.
“The same pattern can repeat itself, with bloggers and tourists self-censoring themselves to avoid falling under Assad’s notorious intelligence services,” he said.
I’m just trying to show my audience, which is 90% western, what Syria looks like.Janet Newenham
Similarly, companies sponsoring videos made by YouTubers in Syria, like VPN provider Surfshark who sponsored Rich’s trip in April, have also come under fire. Surfshark acknowledged Insider’s request for comment but did not provide a response.
At some point, most content creators who visit places like Syria are criticized for black tourism, traveling to dangerous places while enjoying their privileged position.
“I wanted to go to Homs and Aleppo,” Newenham told Insider, referring to two war-torn Syrian cities. “Of course, it’s a bit of dark tourism.”
As Syria gains popularity as a destination for black tourists and the Assad government reopens, critics say the regime is pushing to rebrand the country – with success.
“Since the war died down, Syria has become the next North Korea,” Fullerton told Insider.
“People see Syria as a way to launch their careers. In a way, it worked.”