Saudi Arabia has been enlisting Instagram influencers to document the country on all-expenses-paid supervised tours, part of efforts to improve its reputation and build a tourism industry from scratch.
Insider spoke with a dozen prominent travel influencers about four carefully curated state-sponsored trips meant to lay the groundwork for Saudi Arabia to open its doors as never before.
It comes as the kingdom faces an uphill struggle, in the influencer community and in the wider world, to shed a reputation based on human-rights abuses, the oppression of women, and acts of brutality.
Governments offering free trips to influencers, celebrities, and journalists is a relatively normal practice. But it is unprecedented in Saudi Arabia, which has long been closed to general tourists and once considered tourism un-Islamic.
Influencers returning from Saudi Arabia spoke with Insider about their eye-opening trips. Others who received invitations said they refused to go as a matter of principle.
The murder of the Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi last October cast a cloud over the country, as crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's reputation as a reformer began to fall apart.Saudi Arabia wants to reach 30 million tourists a year as part of Vision 2030, its plan to advance the country and reduce oil dependence. Showing the West that change is underway is key.
Insider has learned confidential details of how Saudi Arabia wooed elite influencers in advance of the launch of the tourist visa, which was formally launched on September 27.
The trips included:
- A five-day, all-expenses-paid tour of Saudi Arabia, culminating with VIP tickets to the first international motorsport event ever held in Saudi Arabia, the Formula-E Grand Prix.
- A series of nine-day, all-expenses-paid tours for "influencers, policymakers, and leaders of tomorrow" by Gateway KSA, an elite cultural-exchange program funded by government-owned companies.
- A trip to attend a one-off extreme-sports event held at the desert site of Saudi Arabia's $500 billion NEOM megacity project.
- An all-expenses-paid trip to the government's music-and-arts festival, Winter at Tantora.
Here's how the trips went down, and how the influencer community reacted to the kingdom's hospitality.
Formula-E Grand PrixLast December, Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority hosted an event for Formula-E, the eco-friendly sibling of Formula 1. It saw race cars speed through Ad Diriyah, the 15th-century home of the Saudi royal dynasty.
Insider spoke with several influencers who went to the race, which they attended off the back of a four-day curated trip to revered sites across Saudi Arabia.
In the invitation, seen by Insider, the government assured its handpicked guests that "all flights, accommodation, and transportation expenses are covered."
Gary Arndt, an award-winning travel photographer who runs the Everything Everywhere Instagram account and travel blog, was one of those who accepted.
"We got free transport, lodging, and food. We had the VIP passes in the big tent by the Formula-E track," Arndt told Insider. "I even met a couple of minor princes. They threw a lot of money at this."
In the days leading up to the Formula-E race-day, Arndt was treated to a dawn safari and desert camping trip in the Ula badlands.
"They had 10 brand-new SUVs to drive everyone around, with two to each car," Arndt said. "They still had the plastic covering on the floor-mats. We stayed in enormous tents with one of the most amazing spreads I've ever seen.
"Other groups, including from China and other places, said they were given the same experience. There was a lot of money thrown at this, and I think the tourism thing is something they care about."Despite the overwhelming hospitality, Arndt said he couldn't resist testing the water when he arrived in Riyadh.
"I arrived in my hotel and was on my phone. I was able to do internet searches on Jamal Khashoggi, which weren't censored," he told Insider. "It's not like it's North Korea."
Bret Love and Mary Gabbett, who run the Green Global Travel Instagram account and blog, also recieved the invitation, but told Insider they "didn't consider it, even for a second."
"We felt it would be irresponsible to collaborate with a government whose wealth is tied up in the exploitation of fossil fuels, who arguably remains the most prolific sponsor of international Islamist terrorism, and who imprisons/murders journalists for daring to speak out against the crown," they said.
Influencers were given the one-off Sharek 14-day visa, launched in October 2018, to access the Formula-E grand prix.
Gateway KSAIn 2018 and 2019, some of the world's biggest influencers were invited to visit Saudi Arabia by a secretive cultural-exchange project called Gateway KSA. It's led by Prince Turki Al Faisal, a cousin of Crown Prince Mohammed.
It partners with the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, a think tank named after a former Saudi king, and receives money from government-owned companies such as the Saudi Telecom Co. and the airline Saudia.
Gateway KSA chose Aggie Lal, the woman behind the 800,000-follower Travel in Her Shoes Instagram account, for an all-expenses-paid nine-day tour of Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Al Ula region in May.
Lal told Insider how she was blown away by Saudi hospitality. She said that, as a feminist, she insisted on meeting real Saudi women, which her hosts accommodated. Lal said: "My expectations were very low. I didn't hear anything positive beforehand, to be honest. But my impressions were very positive. Gateway KSA connected us with real women — they weren't hiding them from us."French photographer and Instagrammer Antoine Collas was approached to visit in December 2017.
Collas told Insider how he, several other content creators, and a number of high-flying students from Ivy League universities were taken to meet Prince Turki at his house.
He said the group were encouraged to ask whatever they wanted about Vision 2030, the war in Yemen, and even Khashoggi.Collas was taken to an exposition of Saudi regional culture, a tour of the headquarters of Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, a three-day desert safari to Al Ula, a tour of the capital, Riyadh, including the Saudi National Museum, a tour of Jeddah, and a boat trip on the Red Sea.
Students studying the Middle East at prestigious universities were invited on "a fully funded visit" to Saudi Arabia by Gateway KSA in September 2018.
At the same time as the tour, 1,500 miles away, in Istanbul, Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents. It shocked the world and put an unforgiving spotlight on Saudi Arabia.Gateway KSA's founder and CEO, Nelleke Van Zandvoort Quispel, told Insider that her program aims to "demystify and normalize Saudi Arabia and challenge conceptions about the country."
"The influencers are to give the country exposure to a wide public audience and to showcase the beautiful aspects of the country," she told Insider from the company's Hong Kong office.
Neom Extreme Sports
In October 2017, Mohammed bin Salman unveiled plans for a $500 billion megacity called Neom, which is supposed to one day cover an area the size of Massachusetts. He called it "a place for the dreamers for the world."Neom, Saudi officials hope, will be crucial to Saudi Arabia's tourism industry.
According to plans obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Neom is meant to one day boast flying taxis, a fake moon, "cloud-seeding" technology to make artificial rain, and a "Jurassic Park"-style island filled with robot dinosaurs. For now, it is mostly undeveloped desert.
In April, the region hosted a gathering of "the world's most advanced and bravest professional sporting athletes," dubbed the Extreme Sports Event.
Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil, the Canadian stars of the 215,000-follower ThePlanetD Instagram account, recieved an invitation to attend — with flights, accommodation, meals, and activities included — but they declined.
"It's not often that we let a country's politics decide whether we visit or not, but in this case we felt justified," they told Insider.
"Canada's relations have soured with Saudi Arabia, and our ambassador was kicked out last year after Canada condemned Saudi Arabia for human-rights violations."
One of the competitors at the extreme-sports event, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Insider the event was "quite absurd" and lasted for only about 20 minutes, with an audience of fewer than 60 people.
"It was pretty obvious that they had pumped quite some money into this event. We were accommodated at a Western-style hotel. They seemed to be keen to get tourism up, especially in the region of Neom."
Winter at TantoraThe Royal Commission for Al Ula, a government body headed by Mohammed bin Salman, focuses on readying the UNESCO heritage site of Al Ula for mass tourism. Last December, they invited guests to the Winter at Tantora festival, which is held in the desert.
The invitation, seen by Insider, was sent to one of the world's most prominent travel bloggers, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. It read, "Flights, visas, accommodation, ground transportation, meals and all hospitality during your stay in the Kingdom will be taken care of by the Royal Commission."
The invite promises attendees they will rub shoulders with "global leaders, government officials, entrepreneurs and connoisseurs." The weeks-long festival included musical performances from the Greek star Yanni, opera singer Andrea Bocelli, French violinist Renaud Capuçon, and Chinese pianist Lang Lang.
Matthew Karsten, an adventure-travel blogger also known as Expert Vagabond, told Insider that he did not attend because of a schedule conflict, but he added he'd never accept paid work with the kingdom.
My experience in Saudi Arabia? Unforgettable! The landscape was beautiful, the people were generous and the food - delicious!! . This photo was taken at Madain Saleh in Al 'Ulá. Quick fact: Madain Saleh is the largest conserved site of the civilization of the Nabataeans south of Petra in Jordan and is the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia. It was such a remarkable sight to behold!!! #discoverAlUla . . *Note: Madain Saleh is currently closed to the public for renovations but will reopen soon!! . . . #saudiarabia #saudia #addiriyaheprix #world_bestnature #unescoworldheritage #wherewillwegonext #postcardsfromtheworld #passportready #aroundtheworld #instavacation #instatravelling #traveltheworld #traveldiaries #mytravelgram #middleeast #andshesdopetoo #dametraveler #placestovisit #bucketlist #beautyiseverywhere #beautifuldestinations #travelstoke #madainsaleh #placestogo #lonelyplanet #passionpassport #travelawesome #saudi
"Would I take money from Saudi Arabia or North Korea? No. That's my line. You have to be prepared for the consequences and social backlash of your decision."
All the travel bloggers who spoke with Insider were told they were not permitted to explore the country outside their official itineraries. A travel photographer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told Insider that they took issue with being invited to the kingdom "for good PR."
"If I decide to go and find a deal that suits me with them, I will make a point to have freedom during my stay there," the photographer said.
What next?Saudi Arabia's great hope for tourism lies with the Ula region, a Belgium-sized desert filled with UNESCO World Heritage treasures.
Saudi Arabia believes the sixth-century city of Al Ula and 131 pristine 2,000-year-old Nabataean tombs at Mada'in Saleh will one day match the Acropolis of Athens, Greece, or the ruins at Petra, Jordan, in terms of footfall.
Eric Stoen, who's ranked as Forbes' fourth most influential traveler, said he was invited to Saudi Arabia in 2018 but turned it down for scheduling reasons. He said the current visa situation is a reason others may have said yes.
"That's why a lot of people went," he said, "because it could be their only chance to easily get a visa and check Saudi Arabia off their lists."
The tourist visa — valid for 90 days and costing 440 riyals ($117) — launched on September 27.