How travel influencers became a propaganda tool for Syria's regime
This is Syria. This is one of Syria’s oldest cities in the world. This is a travel vlogger’s latest destination. Cue the melodramatic piano track.
Jay Palfrey, a British travel blogger, is one of a growing number of travel influencers who have visited Syria.
Palfrey has filmed his travels in Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq. He is no stranger to destinations far off the beaten path. But he admits that Syria was the hardest trip he had ever been on.
“Syria, it’s the most grey area I’ve ever been to … There’s still crisis going on. And the government is a very grey area, so you have to make a choice whether you feel comfortable going there,” Palfrey said.
"Critics of these trips to regime-held Syria say that not only do they promote a narrative that Syria is safe when it is not, but that they financially benefit a genocidal regime"
Despite his initial qualms, Palfrey did a tour of regime-held Syria, visiting Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, and Sednaya. He was accompanied by a regime-appointed guide the entire time.
“I tried to find the culture and the people, but honestly, I struggled to film. I couldn’t film anymore. I was just crying the whole time,” Palfrey told The New Arab before he released his videos about his time in Syria.
To many Syrians, however, Palfrey’s trip did not just present a dilemma about ethical tourism but was potentially also a propaganda tool.
According to Ayman Abdel Nour, the founder of the Syrian Christians’ Initiative for Rights and Dialogue, these trips are part of a deliberate strategy “prepared and pushed by regime intelligence” to promote the regime’s narrative of what Syria looks like today.
As part of this strategy, influencers, far-left political personalities like Rania Khalek and far-right personalities like David Duke alike are encouraged to come to Syria. They each give their own take on the situation in the country.
This can be in a way that overtly supports the regime and or at other times gives the more simple message that Syria is safe under the regime’s control. The result is a multi-pronged information campaign with audiences ranging from leftist ideologues to adventure tourists seeking their next destination.
Besides the political messaging, to the nearly 12 million Syrians who are displaced from their homes, watching influencers traipse their streets so lightheartedly can feel like a violation.
“My friend said he was going to vomit when he saw his streets in [Palfrey’s] videos. They know those places, their houses are very near. He has the right to eat in those places, while they are Syrian and can’t. Maybe they let him stay in their house. Who gives him the right to do so?” Abdel Nour said.
Tourism is big business
Critics of these trips to regime-held Syria say that not only do they promote a narrative that Syria is safe when it is not, but that they financially benefit a genocidal regime.
“The regime doesn’t care if [influencers] criticise the regime a little bit. They allow them to say whatever they want. They just want them to promote the idea that it’s safe. This means hard currency from tourists,” Abdel Nour said.
He added that the first target of this messaging is the UN and the international community. The narrative of a country safe for refugee returns is the key to unlocking “billions in” international funding for reconstruction.
The second, more immediate target for these influencer videos is diaspora Syrians.
"The regime doesn't care if [influencers] criticise the regime a little bit. They allow them to say whatever they want. They just want them to promote the idea that it's safe. This means hard currency from tourists"
“There are more than 11 million Syrians living abroad. In Summer  50,000 Syrians visited Syria from America. That’s 50,000 hard currency holders. Of those, 40,000 stayed in hotels because there’s no electricity. They are like American tourists, sitting in a hotel, eating in restaurants,” Abdel Nour said.
“They are not looking for white, blue-eyed tourists. They have their own people abroad who have hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.
And despite the global economic downturn, tourism seems to be heating up in Syria.
The head of Golden Target Tourism, a Syrian tour company which brings in foreigners, said that the tourism season has left him extremely optimistic.
“The situation is getting better, and clients are happy and informing their friends. It’s promising in general,” he told The New Arab.
So far, Golden Target Tourism has had 550 clients this year. In the pre-COVID period, Golden Target Tourism had only about 170 clients per year.
Most of the company’s clients are from the EU, the UK, and Australia. He has even had a few repeat clients.
Is it possible to be non-political?
The travel influencers who go to Syria are careful to say that they are non-political. Under all of Palfrey’s videos on Syria, he puts a disclaimer: “I am not a political figure, I am a tourist.”
Another vlogger, Davud Akhundzada, wrote under a video he took in Homs, that “by making these posts I am not supporting anything that happened in the country or [is] happening in the country!”
Travel influencers are evidently aware of the controversy generated by past visitors to Syria and the disdain that so-called “dark tourism” or war tourism can generate.
Some vloggers revel in the country’s morbid past, using the mystique of visiting a conflict-ridden country to fuel views. They exclaim that contrary to what the media says, Syria is absolutely safe, and urge their audience to come and see for themselves.
"These trips are part of a deliberate strategy 'prepared and pushed by regime intelligence' to promote the regime's narrative of what Syria looks like today"
In the process, influencers offer their own explanations of Syria’s civil war and revolution.
“The people fighting the government got weapons from foreign countries … and they were shooting civilians and the Syrian army, so naturally the Syrian army was attacking back at them,” Akhundzada said in his video on Homs.
His explanation – a gross oversimplification of Syria’s revolution – is the benign form of what experts say is a dense network of disinformation swirling around Syria on the internet.
In one extreme example, a TikTok video shows aerial footage of Homs destroyed. “Syria after America destroyed it,” the video caption reads. Despite the fact that the US has never dropped a bomb near Homs, the video generated two million views.
Other influencers are aware of the ugly stereotype of the 'dark tourist' and make an attempt to grapple more sincerely with the country’s morbid history.
Palfrey is of the latter sort. In one video, he takes his time walking through the ruins of Aleppo and somberly describes how the city was torn apart by guns and bombs. Palfrey never states who exactly was firing these guns, however, nor who was dropping these bombs.
He later addresses the camera directly from his hotel room and describes how awful the humanitarian situation is for families who will have to endure brutal summers and chilling winters. He drops a UNHCR link in the video description where viewers can donate.
Palfrey again admits he is not a political figure. He was not aware for example, that a stop on his trip, Sednaya, is the site of one of Syria’s most notorious detention centres where thousands have been tortured to death.
Still, he was aware that his presence in the country was not neutral.
“If I regard Syria as dark tourism, it is probably not right for me to go there, when the government is still doing these things to its own people. I’m showing the culture, which is only regarded as safe because the government has done these things to its own people,” Palfrey said.
He added that knowing what he knows now, he probably wouldn’t have gone in the first place.
He still uploaded his videos to YouTube though.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou