Unshackled by pandemic restrictions, travel influencers are flocking to Syria in record numbers this year, giving fans a rare insight into the war-torn country.
But those creators have at the same time been criticized for normalizing the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad, with activists saying they often, inadvertently or otherwise, parrot the government’s narrative of the civil war.
For a decade, entering Syria as a tourist was impossible, but after fighting in the Syrian conflict eased in 2019, adventure-seeking tourists and YouTubers returned — until COVID-19 arrived. Now, they’re rushing back.
At least 10 major personalities, including Simon Wilson, “Bald and Bankrupt” star Benjamin Rich, Janet Newenham, and Gökhan Yıldırım, have traveled to Syria in the past 12 months alone.
In the videos, the YouTubers are by and large led around Syria by car, meeting locals and visiting restaurants, markets, and heritage sites in government-controlled areas such as Homs and Damascus while being given history lessons by their guides.
Almost all content creators who visit Syria try to avoid giving opinions on the civil war, with most praising the Syrian people for their warmth and saying their view of the country changed for the better. Wilson and Rich did not respond to a request for an interview from Insider.
“There are a huge amount of YouTubers who are trying to grow. It’s a business for them,” Ayoub Morrata, a Syrian who runs tours for foreigners in the country, told Insider.
“The tourists now are young and mostly following dark tourism. The government don’t mind YouTubers coming here, as long as everything is under control.”
‘The next North Korea’
Entry into Syria as a tourist is first dependent on getting a security clearance from the country’s General Intelligence Directorate, which is only possible by purchasing a tour with a Syrian travel company.
All these companies need the approval of the Assad regime to operate.
In their videos, many content creators say they didn’t interact with any government officials in Syria, but activists say the tours are far from free of government oversight or influence.
“Assad intelligence services will almost certainly control any visits like these,” Krystian Benedict, Syria campaign manager at Amnesty International, told Insider.
“This will include guidance, obvious surveillance, and direct accompaniment — mainly to ensure these bloggers are presenting the image of Syria that the regime wants.”
Foreign tourists are allowed to choose where they want to go in Syria, so long as they stay in areas under government control and close to their guides, according to Morrata and Shane Horan, whose Rocky Road Travel company runs regular tours in Syria.
“Certain roads and towns are off limits for security reasons and to guarantee our safety but there is no government say on the selection of customers, the itinerary, or who we interact with,” Horan said.
Citizens of several countries, including the US, are barred from entering the country as tourists and the use of drones — a crucial tool of the modern travel influencer — is also forbidden.
Activists say it’s clear that many of the “guides” seen in the backgrounds of foreign YouTubers’ videos are actually Syrian government minders dressed in civilian clothing. However, there is no clear evidence to support this claim.
—Mohamed Al Neser (النسر) (@M_Alneser) March 22, 2022
“You notice those who visit Syria do not move freely between the regions in Syria alone, there are always intelligence agents belonging to the Assad regime accompanying them everywhere,” the Syria-based photojournalist Fared al-Mahlool told Insider.
“Of course you’re being monitored 24/7,” the Syria disinformation expert Sophie Fullerton told Insider.
“The people who are going on these tours may believe they’re free to do what they want, but they’re free to do what they want in government-controlled areas: You’ll never see these bloggers in Idlib,” she said , naming the region controlled by Syrian rebel groups where pro-Assad forces are accused of committing scores of war crimes.
‘Bloggers who visit Syria do not tell the truth’
It’s clear that YouTubers who have recently traveled to Syria give a much-needed, street-level view into a society which has been overly defined by violence.
One such content creator is Janet Newenham, who visited in late 2021 and whose most successful video on the country racked up 185,000 views.
“We never hear about the Syrian people. We just hear about war and how bad Bashar al-Assad is,” she recently told Insider.
“I’m just trying to show my audience, which is 90% Western, what Syria is like, as they don’t know anything about it.”
Newenham said she saw no indication that her guides had anything to do with Assad’s government or security apparatus.
The Turkish YouTuber Gökhan Yıldırım, who visited in March, also told Insider he had no interaction with the government and that he’d gone to Syria to learn.
“I came here with a prejudice, but I saw a very different situation than the one in the news,” he said.
Both Yıldırım and Newenham have been accused of profiting from misery or whitewashing the atrocities of Assad’s regime.
Yıldırım was criticized after posting a video in which he repeated a claim by his guide that a building in Homs was destroyed “by terrorists.”
“I later found out that some of what was told to me was a lie,” he told Insider, saying he later corrected the errors in his post. “I was criticized a lot in my Homs video, but I wasn’t criticized after [the edits] because I showed the truth.
Newenham also faced criticism after she repeated a similar claim by her guide that the area around a Homs mosque was destroyed “by terrorists.”
“There are comments like, ‘this is propaganda,’ ‘you shouldn’t have gone here,’ ‘you’re showing off all these posters of Assad,'” she told Insider, adding that her supporters “raised almost 10,000 euros for Syria causes afterward.” Unlike Yıldırım, Newenham did not edit her video of her after receiving the comments.
Benedict, the Amnesty campaign manager, said: “Bloggers erasing this grim reality for a few likes and shares on social media is an incredibly callous form of entertainment.”
“Millions of Syrians still can’t return to their homes because they fear arrest, torture, and execution.”
The Syrian human-rights activist Mohamed al-Neser told Insider that foreign YouTubers are now inadvertently “part of the PR” effort being pushed by the Assad government.
Al-Mahlool, the photographer, said some bloggers “do not tell the truth, but are whitewashing crimes and lying.”
In some cases, Amnesty’s Benedict said, YouTubers may be self-censoring to avoid angering the government, as it was common among foreign tourists who visited the country before the 2011 uprising that preceded the civil war.
“The same pattern may be repeating, with bloggers and tourists self-censoring so they don’t fall foul of Assad’s notorious intelligence services,” he said.
I’m just trying to show my audience, which is 90% Western, what Syria is like.Janet Newham
Similarly, companies sponsoring videos made by YouTubers in Syria, such as the VPN provider Surfshark which sponsored Rich’s trip in April, have also been slammed. Surfshark acknowledged Insider’s request for comment but did not provide any response.
At some point, most content creators who visit places like Syria are criticized for dark tourism, the act of traveling to dangerous places while benefiting from their privileged position.
“Homs and Aleppo I wanted to go to,” Newenham told Insider, referring to two Syrian cities that have been ravaged by the war. “Of course, it’s a little bit of dark tourism.”
With Syria growing in popularity as a destination for dark tourists and the Assad government reopening once again, critics say the regime is working to rebrand the country — with success.
“Since the war has died down, Syria’s become the next North Korea,” Fullerton told Insider.
“People are seeing Syria as a way to jump-start their careers. In a sense, it’s worked.”