Saudi Arabia’s religious fundamentalism, conservatism, oppression of women, human-rights abuses and acts of brutality are not exactly travel brochure selling points. To rehabilitate its reputation and rebrand itself as a tourism hotspot like neighbors Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman, the kingdom is enlisting foreign social media influencers to document the country on all-expenses-paid, supervised trips.
The campaign was launched by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in 2018 but became more active in recent weeks ahead of last Friday’s announcement that travelers from 49 different countries will now be able to enter Saudi through an e-visa and visa-on-arrival. Opening its borders to tourists, the country aims to steer away from its reliance on oil and diversify the national economy.
“Feeling so lucky to be a part of this exciting event, as Saudi Arabia opens its doors to tourists for the first time. This beautiful country has so much to offer. I’m so grateful to be here and to see what’s to come,” travel influencer Tara Milk Tea told her 1.3 million followers last week.
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For all the flat earthers out there, we found the edge of the world! Turns out it’s in Saudi Arabia ??? Feeling so lucky to be a part of this exciting event, as Saudi Arabia opens its doors to tourists for the first time. This beautiful country has so much to offer. I’m so grateful to be here and to see what’s to come. @visitsaudi #WelcomeToArabia #sponsored
Instagrammers alike also begun sharing sponsored posts and pictures of Saudi Arabia’s landmarks, including the #ad and #welcometoarabia hashtags as well as links to the @visitsaudi account. Beauty and lifestyle influencer Lana Rose compared her experience in the country to the world of Aladdin as presented in the Disney movie she used to watch as a kid. Travel blogger Mick Salas also encouraged his over 57,000 fans to add Saudi Arabia to their list of dream destinations.
While admired by many, Saudi Arabia’s beautiful landscapes have failed to shed the country’s authoritarian image and many users have raised their voice against the campaign.
In response to a video posted by travel influencer Lyss, one user commented: “Female activists in Saudi Arabia are being imprisoned and tortured for fighting for their rights to live and dress freely as you do. Yet here you are proudly advertising tourism for the same country that would imprison their female citizens if they posted on Instagram wearing what they want as you do. Shame on you.”
Although still evident below some of the sponsored posts, the public backlash seems to be controlled by the influencers participating in the campaign, with reports of deleted comments. However, some fellow travel bloggers used their own Instagram accounts to express criticism, call peers for greater responsibility when recommending places to visit and remind the online community of the human-rights outcries in the kingdom, including the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.