How 'apolitical' Western Youtubers help push Syrian propaganda
Their videos get huge amounts of clicks and profits on YouTube. And their vlogs show a Syria that has turned the page on years of civil war. But these so-called "apolitical" travel influencers are shown around the country by regime-sponsored guides that shape the narrative. One guide who appears in a number of travel vlogs even has family ties with the Syrian deputy minister of tourism.
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Come spend your next summer holiday in Syria! That's the message from at least a dozen Western travel influencers who share videos showing the Middle Eastern country that has been devastated by years of civil war and still split into government and rebel-controlled zones.
They claim to show you "the Syria the media won't show you", like in this video by British vlogger Benjamin Rich, known to his 3.8 million subscribers by the name of his YouTube channel, Bald and Bankrupt.
In April 2022, Rich and his government-authorised translator/guide travelled to several Syrian cities under Damascus' control. The video shows him attending a football match in the capital, visiting the historic citadel of Aleppo and checking out a bombed hotel in Maaloula.
Even though Rich doesn't like all the ruins around, he doesn't blame the Syrian government, which has used barrel bombs as a weapon of repression for a decade, nor their allies.
Rich and his guide avoided going to Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the 2011 revolt against the regime. While passing near the city, the guide referred to it as an area held by "Islamist extremists", but failed to mention the 4.5 million Syrian civilians living in the northwest of the country, an area that the government has besieged.
The video of this trip has been viewed over 3.8 million times. In the description, Rich says he used an "independent tour agency" called Marrota Travel and Tourism, and gives the email address of a certain "Ayoub" working there.
In an interview from August 2022, Rich says he received an invitation to travel to Syria on Instagram, sent by someone he did not know, but who was called Ayoub. “Would you like a tour of Syria? I think you would enjoy it," the message said.
More recently, on February 13, 2023, two British vloggers who run the travel YouTube channel Dabble and Travel (227,000 subscribers) joined the long list of content creators who were drawn to visit regime-controlled Syria. In an Instagram story taken in Damascus, they can be seen smiling with two Syrian guides in front of a sunset and a Baathist Syrian flag. One of the guides can also be seen in Benjamin Rich's video.
Clickable content that claims to be 'apolitical'
These videos claim to showcase a tourist destination poised to reclaim the ten million annual visitors it welcomed prior to 2011. This is not a coincidence: this narrative mirrors the discourse of the regime, which aims to once again reap the economic benefits of tourism.
Bassam Al Ahmad, director of the human rights NGO Syrians For Truth and Justice, explains:
Some Western YouTubers visit Syria because they are attracted to adventure tourism. To them, it is a challenge to create controversial content and increase interaction. Others come with the objective of relaying official propaganda. They are invited by the regime, often through intermediaries close to the regime, and only visit authorised places and venues. The chic bars and restaurants shown in the videos are only frequented by a small, wealthy part of the population, while 90% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Benjamin Rich's guide is briefly featured in a video by Danish YouTuber Gustav Rosted. Rosted, who has 291,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, has published at least 18 videos, including one titled "I was tortured in Syria".
In the video's thumbnail, Rosted appears shirtless with a man who seems to be strangling him. However, the scene actually shows Rosted receiving a massage in a traditional hammam in Damascus. He boasts about the service, which includes an entrance fee, massage, and towels for only €4.
The provocative title did not sit well with many Syrians, since at least 14,475 people have been tortured to death in government jails since 2011, according to the human rights NGO Syrian Network for Human Rights. The video generated hundreds of disgusted comments from Syrians on Facebook.
It’s one of at least 18 videos Rosted posted on YouTube and Facebook after a December 2022 trip to Syria. Others bear titles like "Night out in Damascus, Syria", "Crazy POOL Party in Syria", and "Is Syria Safe in 2023? (war zone!)".
One Syrian commenter on Facebook wrote: "The life in Syria that you are trying to portray represents 1% of the population as the other 99% of the population live in poverty at less than 15 euros a month."
Rosted told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that he understood Syrians' reactions online:
There's always a lot of criticism when you go to these countries. And I totally understand that there's this criticism because some people have to leave the country, especially in Syria.
But I'm just a guy who likes to travel to talk with people on the ground. I'm not into politics. I like to talk with the locals. I've done interviews in so many countries. So my travels are just about connecting with people and not anything political.
A guide close to the deputy minister of tourism
On July 30, 2022, Giath Al Farrah, the Syrian deputy minister of tourism, said in an interview with a local radio station that his ministry had decided to make it easier for people with a large social media following, such as YouTubers, to get visas to visit Syria. He believed that these influencers could promote Syria by sharing their experiences on social media.
The number of tourists who visited Syria in the first half of 2022 was over 750,000, well over the 570,000 visitors recorded in all of 2021.
Even though vloggers have an easier time getting visas than journalists, they are not allowed to travel independently in the country. Instead, they must hire tour guides for "private tours". Some of these guides are allegedly connected to the Syrian government.
A Syrian journalist tweeted on February 4, 2023, that the tour guide who accompanied Danish travel influencer Gustav Rosted was the same guide who had previously accompanied Simon Wilson, another influencer who had entered Syria on a government-issued visa.
You can see that the tour guide that accompanies Rosted is the same guide that accompanied Simon Wilson, another travel influencer that entered Syria on a regime sponsored visa. pic.twitter.com/tDLCNdXajG— Fared Al Mahlool | فريد المحلول (@FARED_ALHOR) February 4, 2023
It's the same guide we saw in Benjamin Rich and Dabble and Travel's videos.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to use open-source tools to identify the guide as Rami Nawaya and find his social media accounts. Nawaya claims to work as a translator and tour guide for several Syrian travel agencies, including Marrota Tourism and Travel, as stated on his Facebook page and other platforms.
On Facebook, Nawaya also claims to be a family member of Giath Al Farrah, the aforementioned Syrian deputy minister of tourism.
Several guides, same content
Gustav Rosted said he did not reach out to Nawaya, instead claiming that he met him spontaneously in Aleppo, adding that Nawaya was not his guide. Rosted was accompanied by another guide named Khaldoun Alamy, who runs the Golden Target Tours agency. Alamy has also accompanied other vloggers in Syria, such as Eva zu Beck from Poland and Xavier Taychell Blancharde from the UK, since June 2019.
Eva zu Beck told the FRANCE 24 Observers team: "I was not invited by anyone from Syria and paid for the trip out of my own pocket [...] What I published was 100% my own views with no direction or censorship from anyone else in any way. I found my guide through a friend’s recommendation."
FRANCE 24 has confirmed that Marrota Travel and Tourism has accompanied at least five vloggers whose content has caused controversy for aligning with regime narratives. One of the vloggers, Spaniard Joan Torres, organizes private tours of Syria through his agency Against The Compass (at a cost of €1,650 for an eight-day stay). Torres appeared in a photo posted on Rami Nawaya's Facebook account holding cups bearing the image of Bashar Al-Assad. After his trip to the country, Torres was criticised for referring to the Syrian forces' "liberation" of Aleppo.
Golden Team Tourism is another agency that offers private tours to influencers. It is run by Fadi Assi and Gaidaa Ayoub, who are both close to Rami Nawaya, according to photos posted on his Facebook account. In 2019 and 2022, two American vloggers, Drew Binsky (with 3.6 million subscribers) and Thomas Brag (with 8 million subscribers), were accompanied by this agency.
Despite our multiple requests, Rami Nawaya of Marrota Travel and Tourism declined to respond. The Deputy Minister of Tourism Giath Al Farrah and the Syrian ministry of tourism did not respond to our messages either. We reached out to all the vloggers, guides, and agencies mentioned in this article, and only Gustav Rosted and Eva zu Beck agreed to talk to us.
In 2010, Syria attracted 10 million tourists a year, many of whom were Westerners. However, this changed in 2011 with the start of the war, which killed at least 350,000 people and displaced half the population, with millions fleeing abroad.
Bassam Al Ahmad warned:
In Syria, the absence of military operations does not mean that there is no longer arbitrary detention. Many Syrian refugees are deprived of their country and cannot return. These YouTubers are not trying to tell the reality, but to hide it, and that is why we have to be very careful when dealing with this kind of content.