Two years ago, I was talking to a friend about our bucket list destinations. Russia was (and is) high on my list. “I have no interest in Russia,” my friend said. I expressed surprise. “Think of the history, the art, the architecture,” I argued. “I don’t want to give my tourist dollars to Putin’s government,” my friend replied. And when I thought about it that way, I had to think, Okay, fair.
In five days, Saudi Arabia, which is currently running a catfish-y teaser campaign, will launch itself as the world’s newest “unseen destination”. When I started seeing the coverage of the campaign pop up, that conversation about Russia sprang immediately to mind. Looking at some of the gorgeous images, I can’t say my curiosity wasn’t piqued. What is that Petra-like temple?, I wondered. In the next thought, I bet no one will be there.
Would you visit Saudi Arabia?
The campaign in question features jaw-dropping footage of seemingly untouched landscapes. Hashtagged, #whereintheworld, the website has yet to officially reveal that every destination belongs to Saudi. A countdown beneath the teaser video tells you to come back in five days for the big reveal. “Be the first to visit an exciting, new destination. Get ready to see the unseen,” reads the copy.
As travel bloggers, the whole point is to go where no one else has. Our goal is (or should be) to pull more facets out of one cultural interaction. To add depth and nuance to our experiences, and share those with our readers and viewers. I always thought I’d be willing to travel anywhere, to experience the culture—both good and bad—myself. And then draw my own conclusions for readers. And I still strongly believe that. I think it’s deeply important to see things with my own eyes, and challenge my stereotypes and prejudices and biases. Loftily, you could say that I’d consider myself a journalist in that regard, trying to uncover a new perspective. But would I visit Saudi Arabia? I’d never asked myself that before.
What is progress?
In response to the new tourism push, I’ve heard people defending Saudi. “They’ve made a ton of progress in the last few years.” “Women can drive now!” “In ten years, it’s going to be completely normal to visit Saudi Arabia.” As an exercise, I tried to look at it through neutral eyes. In the interest of challenging my biases, I decided to do some independent research—to double-check Saudi’s progress for myself. On Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I discovered a whole host of human rights violations I wasn’t even factoring into my hesitance to visit. Grimacing, I closed the browser tab.
It’s very difficult to justify giving massive tourism money to a country with truly abhorrent policies—no matter who or where that country is. Press trips are often sponsored by the host country, relieving journalists of tourism’s personal investment aspect. I’m not a journalist, and though I could probably write a pitch letter to the Saudi Tourism Board, I don’t see myself taking that action. I also don’t see myself able to reconcile the cultural experience with the fact that my tourism money would be supporting a government that actively executes homosexuals, refuses to allow women basic freedoms, exploits and enslaves foreign workers, and persecutes those who practice a different religion…among other its many other violations. In writing this, I’m well-aware of the human rights violations perpetrated by own home country’s government—and when I’ve heard German friends say they will not be visiting America in the next few years because they refuse to support Trump, I completely understand why.
Bucket list or black list?
Ultimately, we all have the luxury and privilege of choosing our destinations and deciding where we go. I’ll admit I gave Saudi Arabia a serious thought as a possible destination. But when I thought about Saudi women, who by law cannot travel freely (as I do) without permission from a male in her household, I realized that this isn’t a place I want to be.
What do you guys think about the new campaign? Would you consider visiting Saudi Arabia? Why or why not? Are there other countries that you’ve blacklisted?