Glamorising Conflict Zones - Education or Bad Influencing?
With the rise of travel blogging and vlogging and the want for each influencer to make themselves stand out from the crowd, visits to war torn countries is on the rise. Suddenly, my YouTube timeline is filled with vlogs created in places I would never dream of visiting as a white British tourist. Yet, there is something that is intriguing about watching a video from inside Aleppo, or Iraqi Kurdistan that makes me feel like I too, could visit these countries unharmed.
Then reality hits when I heard that just yesterday, 20 people were killed and 90 were injured in a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city. The Taliban - who still run 55% of this country - have claimed responsibility for this attack on a hospital where all victims were native Afghani women and children. Yet in a recent video I watched on Facebook from a really well-known vlogger, Afghanistan is made out to have a war torn history, but it is safer now, friendly and good for a little city break getaway... Probably not one I'd add to my bucket list.
OK so I'm not disputing the fact that the locals aren't friendly and hospitable because like in every single country on this planet, there are good people and bad. However my opinion is that a visit to Afghanistan for normal people like me and you reading this, has more risks and procedures involved than a quick trip to Italy does. These vloggers who are risking everything for the sake of a YouTube video is silly, despite possibly making them a healthy wage. Journalism in most conflict zones is strictly prohibited and there are huge consequences for those caught documenting anything whilst in these types of places.
Now, as one to always argue both sides of the coin, I will say that the influencers who do visit conflict zones are usually accompanied by a guide. This is usually imposed by the country and visas will not be accepted unless you are on an official guided tour, much like in North Korea. There are clearly a lot of benefits to having a guided tour around these types of countries as usually the guides are locals. They have lived and survived through it all to tell their story. They will know the local areas and know where is safe and unsafe to visit as a tourist.
However in one travel vlog that I watched about a visit to Aleppo in Syria (yes, you read that right!), the female vlogger informs her audience that her guide has not been back to Aleppo for 8 years! A lot has happened in Aleppo in the last 8 years, so what good is that guide going to be, other than maybe a bit of local protection? Maybe I am judging too hard, but for me, if I was ever to visit a country that is still in conflict now I would want a guide that has been in the country through it. Someone who has experienced life in Aleppo - warts and all.
Another common trend I have noticed amongst vloggers who visit war torn areas are usually in and out of the country super quickly. I watched an American vlogger couple who visited Iraq and they were in and out in 3 days, again accompanied by a guide. It could be argued that the reason for them to be in an out of a country so quick is to keep a low profile and for their safety. Would you really risk being somewhere you are not wanted for the sake of 3 days and one YouTube video? Maybe you would. Unlike those vloggers who decide to spend 6 months in Bali or New Zealand, most videos I have seen are very brief visits to conflict countries which suggests that it's unsafe to stay for any lengthy period of time.
Is it Educational or are Influencers Putting Out The Wrong Message?
This is the question that I struggle to come to a conclusion on.
I cannot deny that I have had my eyes opened to a lot of facts from watching this genre of YouTube video. I have learnt about countries in Africa that I have never even heard of, let alone know anything about. I have learnt about political stances in countries - good and bad - and have learnt about economies too.
I am really curious by nature and I have always been a bit of a "why?" person. I like to know everything even if it means knowing stuff that may seem irrelevant to some. Watching vloggers in conflict zones does, undeniably, give you a visual insight into the country even if it is selective. The lens and eyes cannot lie. The more vloggers / influencers that visit these countries to "showcase" them, the quicker it will become the norm I feel. The vloggers I have in mind for this article have a combined following of over 2.5 million subscribers just on YouTube alone, making their reach massive, meaning that they probably have a big influence over their followers.
Let's touch on what has happened recently in the travel vlogger world and take a look at Jolie King and Mark Firkin who during their travels in Iran were arrested and have been held in an Iranian prison for flying a drone. Previous to this happening, there were many vloggers who had visited Iran untouched and unharmed, but Jolie and Mark who were trying to "break the stigma" of this country ended up in prison. That's reinforcing the stigma to me! Again, they had a following over various social media platforms, and it would only take one person who relates to them to go to Iran possibly with no knowledge of the country, no safety and security insights - nothing - and they could possibly end up in harms way. Maybe this is why Jolie and Mark were in Iran in the first place??
I'm not saying that no one should ever visit these countries - not at all - but what I am saying is that bloggers who visit these countries usually do not have any formal training on how to behave in conflict zones nor enough intelligent knowledge about the country they are visiting, therefore are they really the right people to preach that these countries are safe? Would they know what to do if they were caught up in a cross fire? I would edge my bets and say probably not.
To conclude this blog post, I want to begin by saying that travel videos are undeniably educational. Even if you learn with your eyes rather than your ears, it's hard to argue that there is absolutely nothing to be learned by watching travel vlogs.
Do I believe that vloggers/bloggers/influencers or whatever you would like to call them are glamorising visits to unsafe countries? Absolutely yes, I do.
I believe that all's it would take is a brief explanation at the beginning or during the video to say what is going on in that country and some truth on how safe or unsafe that country is at the time of filming. As I said previously, I am not condemning anyone from visiting these countries at all - but I think bloggers need to be more realistic about the threat levels in these countries - especially again British and American people who are easy targets for any attackers.
I also feel that more information on how the trip has been booked would be helpful for those who will visit unsafe countries regardless - at least then the bloggers are sharing their safety advice and entry process with others who will want to do the same, rather than coming across as "I'm here on my own" in their videos (which usually they are not).
I know there are so many more branches off this blog post that I could explore too. Like the wars on drugs, poverty stricken countries etc but maybe I'll save that for another day.
Let me know your thoughts on this topic in the comments below - I'd love to know what your opinions are on this!