Why I’ll never visit this new hotspot for tourists

If you follow any travel influencers on social media – that is, travel specialists with large followings – then you have probably already seen this. It's a huge cube covered entirely in mirrors, an edifice perched in the middle of the desert, an architectural wonder that both draws in and reflects.

It's a concert hall, called Maraya, built in AlUla, a tourism region of Saudi Arabia about four hours' drive north of Medina. Maraya is the largest mirrored building on Earth, 100 metres long, 100 metres wide, and 26 metres high. It's clad with almost 10,000 square metres of mirrors, creating an incredible effect, like a mirage, something that surely can't be real, that shimmers in the desert, reflecting sand and rock and sky.

It is, in other words, Instagrammer heaven. In creating Maraya, which opened in late 2019 and hit your social media feed soon after, Saudi Arabia showed it is adept at a strategy mastered by one of its Middle Eastern neighbours, the United Arab Emirates: if you build it, they will come.

That is, if you build something visually amazing, a record-breaker, something no one else in the world has, and – crucially – something that looks impressive in a small photo on your iPhone screen, people will come to visit. See: the Palm in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Museum of the Future in Dubai… OK, most of Dubai.

First you build it, and then you pay the influencers to visit and spread the word. Then, the tourists follow. All it takes is one amazing photo, one incredible sight, and it spreads like wildfire. Modern travel is hugely influenced by social media, by the images we scroll past on our phones. Research in 2019 found that 86 per cent of people began researching a destination after being inspired by others' posts online.

Most of us have experienced the bizarreness of rocking up somewhere and discovering that it's a social media hotspot. I was driving in Victoria this time last year, between Marysville and Buxton, and almost mowed down multiple groups of people who were standing in the middle of the highway – in a 100 zone – posing for photos, because it turns out Gould Memorial Drive is a known place for your autumn-leaf Instagram fodder.

There are sites all over the world like this, where you will find long queues of people waiting patiently to get that perfect photo in that famous spot.

And so, Saudi Arabia has built a famous spot. They know that this is all it takes to get on the tourist map. One location. One photo. One image that will drive an entire industry, and maybe even reshape the reputation of a whole country.

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Because that's the real endgame here. The Maraya serves many purposes, but I have no doubt one of its main reasons for being is to help Saudi Arabia paper over some enormous cracks and reposition itself as a trouble-free tourist destination.

Make yourself attractive on social media and all of a sudden people can forget about things like the mass execution of 81 people – mostly of the Shia minority, and many convicted on confessions obtained via torture – just a few short months ago.

You can forget about the horrific state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi. You can forget about the treatment of women by the Saudi regime, women who Amnesty International recently reported "continued to face serious discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody".

Because hey – cool photo.

I have a difficult time with Saudi Arabia. I will be the first to admit that I haven't visited the country, so can only judge it on what I read, in the media, but also from sources such as Amnesty and the UN Human Rights Council.

I also, however, know about the concept of "sportwashing", in which oppressive regimes use glamorous sporting events to turn attention away from their poor human rights records, and it doesn't seem too big a leap to use tourist attractions in that same way. Saudi Arabia does both.

Does that mean you should ignore the desire to see the Maraya – as well as the amazing Nabatean rock carvings near AlUla – because it seems ethically tricky? Or because the Saudi regime is demonstrably abhorrent?

I… don't know. Like I said, I struggle with this. I've visited other countries with repressive regimes and been very happy that I did. Iran is top of mind, a place I'm so glad I visited to discover how different its citizens are from its government.

And look around you: Singapore just executed an intellectually disabled man with an IQ of 69, convicted of trying to smuggle less than 43 grams of heroin into the country; there's strong evidence of appalling human rights abuses by China in the Xinjiang province; the USA continues to enforce capital punishment, even if numbers are shrinking; and the Georgetown Institute's 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index rated the likes of Vietnam, India, Malaysia and even Turkey as worse places for women to live than Saudi Arabia.

There are a lot of awful governments doing a lot of awful things, and a huge number of grey areas to consider. Where you draw your line as a traveller, where you visit and where you promote, is entirely up to you.

But it's worth thinking about the places you want to go, the sights you want to see, and why you suddenly want to see them. And wonder if they're a true reflection, as it were, of the country you're visiting.

See also: I've been to 83 countries, but I've never bothered with Bali

See also: The anti-bucket list: 25 things no traveller wants to experience

Would you travel to Saudi Arabia to see the Maraya? Are you influenced by social media posts when it comes to planning your holidays? Have you visited somewhere purely because of a photo or video you've seen? Are there any countries you definitely would not visit?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

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