Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push


  • TECH
  • Friday, 26 Apr 2019

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 civilisations 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”.

CORRECTION - This handout picture taken on September 15, 2018, and released to AFP by Polish blogger Eva zu Beck shows zu Beck in the front seat of a decorated truck during her trip to Pakistan in Chilas, a small town in Pakistan's northern mountainous region of Gilgit, a favourite tourist spot. - They are young, Western, and full of praise for Pakistan: Travel influencers have discovered the land of the pure but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are selling an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country. (Photo by HANDOUT / Eva zu Beck / AFP) / TO GO WITH: Pakistan-travel-socialmedia-influencers-security, FEATURE by Joris Fioriti -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / Eva zu Beck ' - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - NO ARCHIVES / “The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by HANDOUT has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [ADDS HANDOUT RESTRICTIONS]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.”
Zu Beck in the front seat of a decorated truck during her trip to Pakistan in Chilas, a small town in the country's northern mountainous region of Gilgit.

Gabrielle says her 3,500 kilometre motorcycle trip across the nation was facilitated by a Pakistani association in Oman. 

Alternative vision of Pakistan 

Once seen as an essential stop on the hippie trail, visitor numbers have slumped since the 1970s when the country first underwent sweeping Islamisation 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 travellers.  

“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 travellers 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 travellers 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, who said 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.

CORRECTION - This handout picture taken on March 18, 2019, and released by Canadian tourist Rosie Gabrielle shows Gabrielle posing on her motorbike during a trip in the southwestern Balochistan province in Pakistan. - They are young, Western, and full of praise for Pakistan: Travel influencers have discovered the land of the pure but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are selling an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country. (Photo by HANDOUT / Rosie Gabrielle / AFP) / TO GO WITH: Pakistan-travel-socialmedia-influencers-security, FEATURE by Joris Fioriti -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / Rosie Gabrielle ' - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - NO ARCHIVES / “The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by HANDOUT has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [ADDS HANDOUT RESTRICTIONS]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.”
Zu Beck and Gabrielle (pic) 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.

“All of these travellers are also travelling 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. 

‘Post-colonial hangover’ 

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 travellers 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.

CORRECTION - This handout picture taken on March 20, 2019, and released by Canadian tourist Rosie Gabrielle shows Gabrielle posing for photographs as she holds a Pakistani flag during her motorcycle trip in southwestern Balochistan province in Pakistan. - They are young, Western, and full of praise for Pakistan: Travel influencers have discovered the land of the pure but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are selling an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country. (Photo by HANDOUT / Rosie Gabrielle / AFP) / TO GO WITH: Pakistan-travel-socialmedia-influencers-security, FEATURE by Joris Fioriti -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / Rosie Gabrielle ' - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - NO ARCHIVES / “The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by HANDOUT has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [ADDS HANDOUT RESTRICTIONS]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.”
Travel influencers have discovered the 'land of the pure' but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are selling an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country.

“It kind 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.” – AFP 

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