Can we believe in what travelers say about Pakistan? Are they accurate, fair and independent?
Pakistan is a new eldorado for Vloggers and Instagrammers, especially young attractive ladies, who enjoy a support they could not find in other countries. Authorities and national companies find, here, an efficient PR tool in their attemp for creating a country new image. On their side, these travelers can enjoy a mass of followers they could not reach in other less gender seperated societies, offering them the precious status of “influencers”. Do their stories actually reflect a travel experience or are they more advertising clips for their sponsors and successful ego staging?
1. Audience won in advance, commercial and state support, Pakistan is a paradise for influencers
1.1. An exceptionally favorable environment for audience development
Pakistan became a new El Dorado for vloggers (video bloggers) and travel Instagramers, especially young physically attractive women. “Travel vloggers” have a much higher number of fans than they could hope for in countries where the separation of genders is less marked.
It is an opportunity for grabbing the envied status of “influencer”. These foreign juveniles fascinate the male Pakistanis living in a society experiencing a strong segregation between men and women. If we launch a Google query, for example, on the Polish-British Eva Zu Beck (465 K subscribers) or the Canadian Rosie Gabrielle (304 K subscribers) we see that the first words suggested by the search engine are: “nationality” , “husband”, “age”, “married”, “illness”, “birthday”, “height”, “religion”. The word “travel” is not mentioned. One can easily imagine the fantasies that these young women convey. As a result, most of their subscribers are not foreign visitors. They are Pakistani citizens, who are also awaiting international recognition after having suffered of the terrorist image that stuck to their homeland.
So, to stay on top, vloggers and Instagrammers do not report any negative experience on the country. It would hurt their business. It is important to deliver what their audience expects, namely a flattering message. This is the price to pay for being an “influencer”. We are in a business of mutual seduction. For those who are foreign to this game, such an unpacking of narcissism and marshmallow quickly leads to disgust.
Of course, charm is used even if it is a form of soft exhibitionism. On her Youtube channel, the American Jordan Taylor (521 k subscribers), presents many videos of herself in a bikini. These images certainly make an important contribution to her large audience and, paradoxically, her VIP status in a Pakistan that calls itself ultra-puritan. In this parade of pretenders, a man emerges. He is the American Mark Wienns who has more than 5.6 million subscribers. But he specializes in gastronomy around the world. It is the only one of the first four to truly bring a form of added value and enhancement of local know-how. He has ten times more subscribers than number two, Jordan Taylor.
Far below the first four, the Dutchman Huub van der Mark, like the other vloggers, stages himself. He has, however, the advantage of telling stories that come close, sometimes, to what could be adventure. He has, probably, the disadvantage of not being a young woman, this explaining the fact that he does not cross the barrier of 100 K subscribers. The following three vloggers probably did not invest enough in Pakistan to reach the scores of Eva Zu Beck or Rosie Gabrielle. It is however, there, that the Australian Brooke Saward, like the German Travel Comic and the British Elie Quinn, realizes her best scores in terms of viewing, with the exception of the video of her honeymoon in the Maldives, where Brooke competes with the unveiled Jordan Taylor. She still has the virtue of announcing the color in a clip: “How do I get paid to travel?”
The four, five in fact, Pakistani vloggers who stand out, with the exception of the Scooty Girls, do not really enter the field of travel. However, they deserve interest. Mubashir Siddique also makes videos on gastronomy. He is interested in the one of the countryside. He speaks Urdu as well as the following two. Faisal Warraich puts history subjects online. Like Siddique, he exceeds one million subscribers. The very young Zain Ul Abadin recounts the life of his village with great audience success. This is a testimony that will certainly gain value in the coming decades. In a general classification, he would come just behind the media Rosie Gabrielle. As for the Scooty Girls, they may interest young Pakistani girls who dream of escape, but their distribution is much more confidential.
See appendix for a list of links and the audience for the accounts of these different influencers on social media (Youtube, Instagram, Facebook) and their blogs, if applicable.
1.2 . Commercial and state support facilitating content creation
Pakistani national authorities and companies see foreign vloggers as an effective public relations tool in their desire to create a new image for the country. Tourism has become a critical issue for a nation that needs to bring in foreign currency and provide work for a rapidly growing population. Prime Minister Imran Khan made it one of his priorities upon taking office. “Under Imran Khan, Pakistan plans to boost tourism to create millions of jobs.” Communication on this subject is framed and organized, in a very modern and probably economically rational way. In April 2019, in Islamabad, the first gathering of national and international vloggers was held (Pakistan’s First Vlog Summit 2019). The promotional article “Propakistani” made of it deserves to be highlighted. Note that all three photos and the video inserted represent the American vlogger Jordan Taylor. For a country where patriarchy reigns, we do not see any masculine image in this article. It is announced there:
“it is the ideal moment for Pakistan to present its true image of peaceful, beautiful and friendly place for tourism and, above all, a place where everyone can travel safely.”
Again it is recalled:
“The forum will focus on the fact that Pakistan is a country where one can travel safely, especially for people who come with their families.”
We will come back to this security issue later.
In its report abut the event, Alpha Pro, the organizer, quietly explains that the talks focused on how
“a vlog can be used to influence the opinion of the masses”.
Eight months after the summit, the British Condé Nast Traveler headlined that Pakistan topped the list of the best holiday destinations for 2020.
2. An unreasonably optimistic staging
2.1. Censorship and overzealousness
The American Alexandra Reynolds, through her writings, from experiences lived as an independent traveler, largely contributed to develop the number of foreign visitors there, because there is no international travel guide for this country. However, she says her presentation was banned in the few hours preceding her speech at the “Vlog Summit 2019” as it is told in this article: “We have to be honest, Pakistan is not an easy country to travel: Alex, the travel blogger.”
One of the major subjects of the forum was, as we have seen, security. Alex wanted to talk about it, in a qualified way. It is enlightening to take note of the particularly aggressive male comments that are written below her YouTube video. The sexual attraction of Eva Zu Beck is largely emphasized by numerous Pakistani male commentators.
It appeared, recently, that Alex Reynolds can report unsupported and/or second hand allegations without providing evidences as explained in this article:
“…Alex Reynolds seemed to be reliable when she reported her personal experience. However, this case shows that she also publishes « information » coming from second hand without having met or without having got direct contact with the person she pretends to advocate for. Promoting the « Law of Lynch », she, then, introduces severe doubts about the quality of her production.
As a consequence, Alex Reynolds crusade against travel media (see her video « Why travel media is dangerous for Pakistan’s tourism »), appears not to be as crystal clear as it could looked at first glance. It might suggest the existence of a conflict of interest and a background rivalry with other female travel media competitors…”
This unexpected situation led to further researches which showed that the video presented above is questionable.
…During the entire video, Alex could be seen complaining several times about Pakistani authorities not willing to accept any sort of critical analysis on their campaign regarding the promotion of tourism in Pakistan. She portrayed as if she is forcefully hired to promote Pakistan by painting a so-called false canvas…
But, upon digging deep into the story, we found out that actual reality might contradict to her words a great deal… The scenario offered a twist when the official Facebook handle of the Pakistan Tourism Summit shared the videos of all the participants of the summit where travel blogger Alex could also be seen given ample opportunity to inform the authorities exclusively about her concerns via detailed presentation…
Read more about the “Chapursan Valley travel guide” and Alex Reynolds “Lost with purpose” blog case:
On Facebook, although this is a widely shared observation, another blogger has been severely criticized for mentioning the few women she sees outside. On the other hand, an influencer, in her desire to exceed the expectations of her audience, presented Balochistan, a region agitated by Islamist uprisings and violence as a safe heaven for solo female travelers. This time, she got sarcasms, even from Pakistanis. Actually these vloggers who present themselves as independent travelers may arrive alone in the country. But they enjoy, on the spot, material or even financial support. Their security is often ensured by armed guards, when they do not benefit from organized trips for their sole purpose. The reality of independent wanderings is not the glamorous one presented by influencers.
Race to the number of subscribers (notoriety, advertising revenue) concerns about pleasing their sponsors (making the trip possible, even remunerative) that is enough to produce more or less misleading “consensual” content.
2.2. Underground tensions contrary to international opening
The glamorous vision projected by influencers can lead to a poor perception of the country’s complexity. It prevents ignoring other opposing, deeply rooted tensions. Read this AFP article published on Gulf News: “Critics say foreign travel bloggers do not paint a full and honest picture of Pakistan”
…critics warn their rose-tinted filters are irresponsible and sell an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country..
“All this ‘Everything is wonderful in Pakistan’ is just irresponsible,” reveals June, an indignant 51-year-old Briton.
“It kinds of makes me angry to have white people represent us. We are not completely done with our post-colonial hangover,” says Zaman.
Pakistan is a land of contrasts with different ethnic groups, tribes and religious sects, not to mention the gap between city dwellers and non-urban people or between people from the plains and those from the mountains. If the stranger encounters a problem, the positions will be determined more by these social parameters than by the quest for the truth. If a fable is constructed, as being a more or less plausible scenario, it will be accepted without any control. We must forget our Cartesianism or our Western rationalism and the efforts we make to collect documented evidence before expressing our conclusions. In a difficult situation, it is to be expected that opinions will be expressed after the opponents have appealed to emotions and impulses. Thus, among the thousand slanderous tweets, that I received from the same radicalized Pakistani woman, who today uses an identifier impersonating me @ gruaabusearkive, not one has been questioned. When I tried to calmly give information to people who retweeted or “liked” these xenophobic defamations, the reactions were hostile and led to new written assaults.
Twitter offered the opportunity to gain an idea of the tension lines and the deep bitterness that haunt the Pakistani backyard behind the facade which is being restored and the quest of its citizens seeking the international recognition to which they aspire .
Promoting more or less gendered visuals as well as a form of success, in countries where many women are kept hidden and where citizens aspiring to travel cannot fulfill this dream due to lack of means, is a source of danger. Vlogging ingenuous women do not necessarily realize that their baits are viewed by millions of Internet users, whose frustrations, fantasies of easy pleasure and resentment they arouse. They can then turn into prey as soon as they do not enjoy armed protection as during the production of their promotion clips for Pakistan. It is the traumatic experience experienced in India by the American Jordan Taylor.
Update, read the November 12, 2020, by The Guardian: “How western travel influencers got tangled up in Pakistan’s politics”
Zu Beck posted vlogs to YouTube from Pakistan’s major cities. Her follower count grew exponentially, driven mainly by viewers within Pakistan. One video she posted to Facebook in August 2018 has been viewed 1.5m times…
..Although people offering practical guides to travellers had an obligation to address security questions, she (Eva Zu Beck) said, that wasn’t the kind of content she was making. “People have this idea that I make vlogs in order to promote tourism destinations,” she had told me when we first spoke. “That idea is wrong. My videos are not travel guides, and they are not practical pieces of advice. They are stories. That’s all they are.”…
3. For your comfort and your safety, keep a healthy skepticism.
3.1. Keep in mind that Pakistan is far from being unanimously evaluated as the first tourist destination in the world
Pakistan is still considered the 11th most dangerous country in the world. It is home to 12 recognized terrorist organizations. For the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs only the capital, Islamabad, is accessible with enhanced vigilance. The other regions are not recommended except imperative reason when they are not formally not recommended.
3.2. Don’t underestimate the complexity of the society your are visiting.
You will meet with very friendly people. They will treat you. They will invite you for lunch and for dinner. They will be sincere. You will enjoy one of the nicest world hospitalities. You will be repeatedly and endless asked “What-do-you-think-about-Pakistan?”, even when you want to quietly enjoy a beautiful sunset or a gorgeous sunrise. However, as soon as a disagreement appears, accusation of racism, double standards, colonialism and white-suprematism or even separatism will be charged to you.
Don’t believe there is clear border between fundamentalism and all “normal people.” Both ground tendencies are often mixed. Fundamentalism can be just a sign of retardation or, more exactly, of a male domination. However, it could also be the sub-product of modernity. It is shared by numerous educated men and, surprisingly, by numerous women too. You may hear from the same person some advanced social considerations connected with a reactionary speech. Don’t be naive. Respect your interlocutor but don’t project yourself into him. Don’t expect being in front of your mirror, even if he sincerely calls you “brother” or “sister.” Understand how you and him don’t have the same personal history and did not grow up in the same social frame. Mind the fact your words or expressions, even if some they look very commonly accepted positions elesewhere, can hurt very fast.
Last but not least, you came to this country to learn, not to compare. Don’t be a tourist. Act as a responsible traveller. Don’t come there to use the landscape and the people as a background for your personal stage. Look for the differences, try to identify what values they could bring you. Observe how people adapted to an environment so different than yours. Then, you will enjoy Pakistan, a country which could bring you a lot.
Youtube and Instagram accounts of influencers publicizing Pakistan (2020/03/04)
Facebook accounts and blogs of influencers publicizing Pakistan (2020/03/04)
Aneeqa Ali, is a lady running a serious and professional Pakistani travel agency. Her website, “The Mad Hatters” is amazing and her feed-back on numerous domestic destinations is of great interests. Her comment about the way trendy issues are instrumented by vloggers needs to be taken into account. Here below are two images from her 2020/06/17 Instagram story.
Please have a look to a discussion about this article:
On August 21, 2020, @zarkmasood3 commented on my article: “Can we believe in what travelers say about Pakistan? Are they accurate, fair and independent?”. His local feed-back brings relevant points requiring additional explanations. This is the purpose of the following discussion.