Here & There is a weekly newsletter on a variety of outdoor and travel topics, and part of Mountain Gazette.
Last week, I’d never heard of AlUla, but it’s clear that Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a tourism push to the area. Tourism puff-pieces are popping up all over the place about this (objectively) beautiful part of the desert. They talk about how amazing the helicopter rides are, archeological sites, the impeccable Arab hospitality and look, our driver is a woman! (Saudi women gained the right to drive in 2017).
Meanwhile, three tribesmen who refused to cede their lands to the Neom megacity (another splashy PR campaign tied to tourism) were recently sentenced to death. This is the country whose government sanctioned the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Women are still second-class citizens at best, needing permission from male guardians regarding who they want to marry or when they want to get a passport. It's worth nothing that in an effort to attract more visitors, some laws do not apply, or are relaxed, when it comes to visiting women (but still apply to Saudis). Criticism of the state is not tolerated, and “Execution, even crucifixion, takes place all the time and can be decided at the whim of a judge. There is no independent judiciary, no separation of powers. The judges are appointed by the king." That's just the tip of the iceberg on an appalling human rights record.
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of extremely aggressive spending and promotion in order to build a tourism economy — basically from scratch. Their goal is to attract 100 million tourists a year by 2030. They've got the money to do it, with hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to reshaping the Saudi image in the eyes of international tourists. In addition to heavy spending on promotion, a variety of mega-projects in Saudi Arabia like Neom, the Line, and the Red Sea Project are being developed. This strategy of "washing" a country of negative perceptions through tourism or sport is nothing new. The 2022 FIFA World Cup is being held in Qatar, and has been plagued with controversy around bribery, coercion, and appalling treatment of migrant workers who are building the infrastructure to hold the event. LIV Golf (also funded by Saudi Arabia) is paying big-name golfers hundreds of millions of dollars to participate, although many have refused. President Vladimir Putin lobbied to have the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Russia as part of a strategy to both show Russian power, as well as their "openness".
Geopolitical situations are complex and a blanket “Don’t travel there! It’s bad!” isn't the right answer. Make your own decisions. I'm a believer in travel as a vehicle for immersing yourself in places, peoples, and cultures in a way that is thoroughly impossible to understand from the outside. Naturally, one should not judge the citizens of a country by the the geopolitical stance of their government. But, I think we can agree that Saudi is more problematic than many places – especially if you're being paid by Saudi tourism to portray a certain image (explicitly, or not).
Perhaps one the greatest examples of addressing these incongruities in a productive way is Anthony Bourdain's experience in Iran while filming "Parts Unknown". The episode is one on the best episodes of travel television ever made (IMO), where Bourdain struggles with the stark contrast between his experiences with the people of Iran and the attitude and policies of their government. "This is not a black-and-white world — as much as people would like to portray it as such. That’s not an apology for anything. I’m just saying that the brief, narrow slice of Iran we give you in this episode of Parts Unknown is only one part of a much deeper, multihued, very old, and very complicated story. Like anything as ancient and as beautiful as the Persian Empire, it’s worth, I think, looking further. But it’s also a place that can warm your heart one day and break it the next."
In the end, it's often about money. For influencers, it seems like authenticity and ethics dry up when a big paycheck is on the line. Then, they're more than happy to regurgitate taglines dreamed up by a regime where homosexuality can still be punishable by death. Even if some get blowback, it all fizzles out in a few weeks and most are on to promoting their next destination. A similar controversy cropped up just a few years ago, but it certainly hasn't prevented Saudi from finding willing visitors to promote travel.
I'll say it again, I don't think "not traveling" is the solution. By all means, travel to places you're interested in (including Saudi Arabia), write about them, and discuss your travel experiences within the context of broader issues and realities. However, when you accept payment (or very expensive comped travel) to actively promote a destination via writing or Instagram influencing, I think there’s an obligation, at the very least, to mention and discuss some of these extremely serious issues when they exist. Unfortunately, it sure seems like it’s in the contracts to not do any of that (or just say "it's complicated" 🙄)— which means you probably shouldn’t go at all.