Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push - GulfToday

Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

Pakistan-travel-1

Canadian tourist Rosie Gabrielle posing for photographs as she holds a Pakistani flag. AFP

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 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.

"Pakistan, it was the trip of a lifetime," food and travel,

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".

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.

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.

Pakistan could "become the number one tourist destination in the world,"

Tourism infrastructure is severely underdeveloped, there are opaque government restrictions on places foreigners can visit.

Influencers are shielded from many issues that ordinary visitors face, adds Zara Zaman, an attendee at a recent tourism summit in Islamabad.

"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.

 

Pakistan-travel-7

Rosie Gabrielle, speaks at the Pakistan Tourism Summit next to Atif Khan provincial minister for KPK for tourism. Amir Qureshi/AFP

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.

"It kinds of makes me angry to have white people represent us. We are not completely done with our post-colonial hangover,

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.

"It kinds 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."

Agence France-Presse