A while back, a group of influencers (people who have large followings on Instagram) all traveled to Saudi Arabia to ‘witness the beauty’, ‘experience the culture” or some such catchy motto. For the most part, I never take much notice of these influencers mostly because I can never relate to the lifestyles they lead or the places their privileged passports take them to. But suddenly, they were going to be right next door to me- in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)- a place that was close enough for me to drive to but so far away in other ways that I could not think of entering this mysterious country.
I was intrigued and curious- what would this group of white, privileged social media hungry individuals do in one of the most conservative countries in the world?
Before I go on, I want you to know that since I live in the United Arab Emirates, I follow quite a few people who live in KSA. There are also many Emirati bloggers I follow who regularly travel to and from KSA showcasing the sites in this country (Gulf citizens have freedom of movement between the 5 GCC nations). So I wasn’t really interested in this journey because I had never seen pictures from Saudi Arabia- I just wanted to see what THESE people were going to do there.
When they arrived in the Kingdom and the posting began on social media, I found myself cringing with embarrassment for their blissful ignorance and ridiculous commentary. In order to avoid any of my friends, family & blogging buddies from making the same mistakes, I have compiled this simple list to remind us of our responsibilities when we travel… this serves as a reminder for me too because I’m holding myself accountable for any oblivious behaviour I have done in the past.
Do: Be aware of the local customs/rules and laws when you go into a place
Going to Saudi Arabia and wandering around the men’s only section of a food & beverage establishment is not a matter to be giggled about; it’s a blatant disregard for the rules and laws of a country you happen to be a guest in. Don’t be this person. Segregation is not only prevalent in KSA- there are also female only parking bays, metro cars, beach days, mall hours and many more distinctions across the Gulf and also in some parts of Asia (Malaysia comes to mind). Being a man and not following these rules is considered invasive and illegal. So it’s not different if a woman does it- its not cute or ditzy. Besides the rules of gender segregation, different countries are strict on difference things- for example, in Iran I had to cover my hair with a scarf. In Singapore, I had to be conscious of how I disposed of my litter; there are many other rules to a culture and society that need to be observed.
Ways to avoid this: In this day and age with an ease of access to information, you should do some basic research on the place you travel to; if you are privileged enough to travel, you are privileged enough to access basic information about your destination. While no one is saying you need to be an expert, knowing the basics can save you from offending someone, embarrassing yourself or getting arrested.
Don’t: Speak on behalf of people from the country
As these influencers spent more time in the country, some of them felt a need to comment on the human rights of local women, living conditions, religious laws and other topics that actually- didn’t relate to their lives AT ALL. They felt qualified to do so after talking to 1 or 2 tour guides that were assigned to them. Please note that as a tourist or even expat in a country, you cannot speak for people who are citizens of a country; you can’t fully comprehend the struggles they go through, the behavioural systems that come with their culture and any aspect of their daily lives.
You are also only just passing through for no matter how long you spend there; whether it’s a week or a decade. Unless your job involves political/judicial commentary, please refrain from commenting on the legal system (which you’ve never had to utilize) or human rights in a country that you are merely visiting because to be blunt- if your human rights were being abused in that country, the chances are that you’d run to your country’s embassy rather than a legal system you have a scant knowledge of. This point also encompasses saying things like, “They have so little but are so happy”. If you could afford to travel there and gawk at poor people, you probably don’t have a clue about how these people actually feel so making presumptions and promoting ‘poverty porn’ is unnecessary.
Ways to avoid this: Learn as much as you can by talking to locals but also recognize that your perceptions are tinted through your own biases and mindsets. Be aware that the things you see and are told may not be the ‘entire story’, there maybe things that are lost in translation and that a lot of things you may hear are designed to keep inviting you back to the country you have visited. Allow people to represent and speak for themselves instead of speaking for them.
Do: Narrate your experience in your own words
Instead of trying to be an investigative journalist or human rights activist, recognize that you too play an important role- you are going to share YOUR experiences with the world in a way that you are competent to do so. Talk about the best vineyard tours, the restaurants you enjoyed dining in and how you felt safe during your time on your trip. You’re a tourist or an expat- your experience will be different from locals and also different from others since each person is different. As an expat living in the UAE, my experience as a South African teacher is vastly different from a Bangladeshi construction worker, an Emirati Uber driver, a British architect or a Filipino store assistant. That’s why I narrate my experience living here, how I found my job and what challenges I experience. Not anyone else’s.
Ways to do this: Recognise that there is actually no need for you to try and speak on behalf of others- you have much more personal experiences to narrate. For example, unless you are getting an arranged marriage to a local person in the place you are visiting- don’t talk about arranged marriages at all; talk about the challenges of converting your drivers license, a hike you recommend doing or the spots you found were the best to watch the sunset from.
Do: Be aware of why and what you are informing your audience
At the end of their brief foray in Saudi Arabia, I watched as the influencers went back to the countries to drink matcha lattes with oat milk (or whatever it is that these people do) and I realized that for the most part- this trip was quite pointless. Most of their behavior was actually offensive and had they not been invited there, they would’ve probably got in to a lot of trouble. It was a case of ‘don’t try this when you travel there!”.
But then why would you travel there? They entered the country of a business visa because I guess… this is their business? But, not everyone earns a living from visiting places. The average panda can’t enter Saudi Arabia for tourism because there aren’t any tourist visas issued despite promises of one for the last few years I have lived in the gulf. So why are you telling me about a place I can’t go to? It seems like you just want to say, “I am so special, look at me, I can go anywhere I want” which is pointless for most inquiring travellers. But let’s say I manage to enter KSA somehow- can I visit the sites you visited and made look so dramatic? No I cannot because they are closed to the public.
So what was the purpose of all the information you gave me about it if no is allowed to see it (except you) and no one is allowed to enter the country’s border (unless for work or pilgrimage)? Are you really so obsessed with making your life seem better than everyone else’s that you actually have nothing solid to offer your audience?
Ways to avoid this: Ask yourself what is the point of what you are doing? If you are someone who shares your experiences with the world (through whatever platform), you have a level of responsibility to make sure its accurate and useful. If you’re doing this just to make your life seem enviable, doesn’t that seem superficial? Of course there are days when you post a pic just to let the haters (and your exes) know that your thriving in life but if that’s all you ever do… it seems pointless.
While these influencers and their sponsored trip to Saudi Arabia served as a catalyst for this blog post, it only served as an important reminder for me to check my own behaviour, story-telling and re-evaluate the purpose of why I blog. I have been reminded that there is a certain level of responsibility that comes with traveling, living abroad and sharing our experiences with the world whether you have 30, 300 or 30,000 followers.
Simply put, going to a country doesn’t mean that its your place to objectify and exploit the experiences of others for ‘likes’ neither is it your place to simplify peoples’ experiences in voices that don’t represent them.
Having an opinion is a great thing but be responsible about where you share it, what its about and whether you’re qualified to share your opinion on matters you may not have a lot of knowledge about.
If these aren’t points you’re considering- even subconsciously- then maybe you shouldn’t be the one to share your narratives with the world. Or even worse- perhaps you’re blissful in your ignorance and disregard for human empathy.
What are some the issues and responsibilities you consider when blogging or sharing your travel stories with the world? Let me know in the comments below!
**For further reading about on this topic I recommend Ohio2Ohayo who talks about the influencer lifestyle and how it presents a problem to the travel community as a whole. You should follow him on Instagram for his sassy & sharp commentary.