iColonialism: Travel Blogging and Cultural Wallpaper

Adventure-style travel blogging tourism has innovated new ways to objectify and commodify populations from developing countries. This is a new, more aesthetic kind of colonialism, which retains the same power dynamic that earlier colonisers established.

In between massacring, torturing and subjecting them to slavery, Christopher Columbus said of the Arawak Indians that they were:

…so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.

(Zinn, 2015: 2)

Columbus’ writings and his legacy continue to haunt the Western conscience. There is considerable discomfort with the incompatibility that this clear naked imperialism ensured the prosperity of European powers for centuries, and continues today. One of the most grotesque aspects was that as Indigenous Americans were unwittingly entering a genocidal war with an insatiable enemy, any kindness or hospitality was systemically exploited.

The contours of this story are familiar and repetitive: violence, disease and commodification eroding cultural fabrics in African, Australian, Asian, and American continents. But too often are these accounts relegated to historical inquiry and separated from the context of contemporary society.

What we miss in this relegation, however, is crucial in explaining how these power dynamics between colonisers and local populations continue today. In different forms and with different names, through global commodity chains, international financial systems, neo-colonial state support and humanitarianism; the exploiter-exploitee relationships are less visible but no less material.

And just as Columbus’ diaries, communications and records give us insight into his colonialist mentality, so too does the internet provide us with a vast data set of neocolonialist projections, behaviour, and beliefs. The ability now to share not only written discourse but also video imagery gives us a variety of forms to observe interactions between European and Anglo-colonial powers (‘First World’) and developing countries (‘New World’).

One of these forms — obsessively aesthetic, interactive and ostensibly inclusive — is found in YouTube travel ‘vlogging’ (video-blogs). Predominantly white, young people, this group have reduced entire cultures into bite-sized media packages for profit and promotion. The content often involves encounters with friendly locals, looking for a bargain prices and travelling to dangerous places; all accessible from the comfort of your device. 

This kind of travelling is a less organised and a more individual extension of what is known as slum tourism, where tourists seek out the authenticity of real-world experiences in harsh conditions and the romanticisation of the locality, while viewing themselves as positively contributing to the development of poor areas.

YouTube travel vloggers have built on these themes to generate income streams by tying together humanitarianism, self-presentation, class and the power imbalance between the wealthy Westerner and the ‘helpless’ local.

Rise of the ‘digital nomad’

Noticeable demographic trends quickly emerge when diving into the community of YouTube travel vloggers. Those with the biggest followings are disproportionately white, young, and from advanced capitalist states like the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia.

They also tend to self-identify as digital nomads. This means that they either lack a fixed ‘home’ address, that they are living medium-to-long term in foreign countries, or that they are ‘expatriates’ living in a country permanently but lack formal recognition in the form of citizenship or residency. Digital nomads’ work is primarily or entirely performed online — usually involving the production of videos, social media content, consulting, clothing, merchandise or advertising — and they are travelling voluntarily.

There is also an ethical component. As opposed to remote working, which is not dependent on the geographical place, for digital nomads, “the value in experiencing different cultures and places is a motivating factor.” This value is conveyed in the content of videos where connection to the local population is a part of the destination’s allure. Although sometimes this connection is reduced entirely to their kindness and hospitality.

It is also often important for YouTube travel vloggers, just as traditional bloggers do, to record inconveniences, struggles and obstacles which they must overcome. This maintains their subjective narrative and presents their experience as inspiring. Being portrayed as rich, privileged and travelling for fun garners much less traction than a travel vlogger who sacrifices and works hard in pursuit of an idealised lifestyle.

…performances of digital nomadism are integral to the successful self-presentation of the travel blogger as an aspirational blogger.

(Willment, 2020: 391)

But it is still clear to content producers that the single greatest accessibility to this lifestyle is cost. There are entire sub-categories of YouTube travel videos offering advice from expenses and living costs to the ‘harsh realities’ of living abroad. Many making comparisons between the cost of living in their countries of origin and cheap travel destinations like Bali.

The target audience are people earning an income in advanced capitalist states. And because most states in Asia have weak economies compared to ‘First World’ states, YouTube travel vloggers (as well as their audience) can enjoy a much higher standard of living. Combined with the mobility that the internet provides, this means that they are able to earn Western-level incomes while living where prices on virtually everything are dramatically lower.

The differential between the cost of living proportionate to wealth and local people is rarely explicitly acknowledged. It is alluded to and implied when the low-cost of living is emphasised, though the conditions, wages and powerlessness of local people are furnishings rather than real issues. But it is this very imbalance which makes the existence of such channels possible and highly profitable. The style of these videos — offering tips and advice for future travellers — assumes a socioeconomic position of the viewer as having relative mobility and wealth compared to the countries visited.

The rise of ‘co-working spaces‘ in popular urban areas of Bali is an indication of the growing prevalence of digital nomads. These spaces provide internet, desk-space and working facilities for “intelligent entrepreneurs who are fuelled by community, collaboration and creativity.” This infrastructure designed for digital nomads facilitates the lifestyle advocated for by YouTube travel bloggers, and provides them with the modern luxuries of the Western world at a fraction of the cost.

Objectifying ‘the locals’

Apart from purchasing power, the biggest part of the environment that these YouTubers rely on are the people. The way travel vloggers present themselves, the places they are situated in and their relation to the local people are the main ingredients of a successful channel. Through their content, these amateur filmmakers reveal much about their position, power and how they construct the other.

Othering is the representation of a group of people as foreign, uncommon, or distant to the subject. Although often unintentional, travel vlogging is founded on this concept and the interactions with ‘local’ people and the spectacle it creates. Viewers watch excitingly to see how their protagonist navigates the social complexities of a different culture. One comment on a video entitled ‘Eating Noodles with the Villagers‘ from popular Scottish travel vlogger Dale Phillip reads:

The term ‘native’ here conjures images of imperialistic paternalism, which is no coincidence. It’s uncomfortably close to Columbus’ writings at the beginning mentioned earlier, suggesting that the power dynamic at play between the traveller and the ‘local’ may have not fundamentally changed.

And much like Columbus, the confident explorer seems more than willing to adjudicate the right level of compensation for local workers. Before paying for a meal costing a grand total of two US dollars, Dale tells us that although he intended to leave a tip, the included five percent service charge will be ‘sufficient’. At other times, the locals become the antagonists of the narrative — ‘Can I get a FAIR PRICE in India‘ and ‘Avoid this SCAM Pharmacy in Indonesia.’ From the second video, after being offered a higher price than advertised, he rambles to himself (and us):

… I’d rather just suffer with my mosquito bites than pay a bloody white man price. What a cheek.

(Dale Philip, 2019)

The difference between the two prices was IDR 38,000 – approximately two euros. Not only is Dale enraged by the idea of being overcharged and taken advantage of, he has recorded and globally broadcast the interaction with a young shop clerk, which has received over two million views.

Dale’s position abides with narratives of locals as untrustworthy, opportunistic, lazy and seeking only ‘immediate material enjoyment’ which were used to construct colonial structures of exploitation. This is one component of colonialism, where a system (market economy) is violently enforced on a population and then their actions within it or against it are used as retroactive justification for its institution.

Poverty branding

Dale is not alone in his eternal quest for the ‘real’ price. The content of travel blogging relies on fetishising poor and disadvantaged lifestyles. There is also a sense of achievement in finding low cost ways of living. Common themes of thriftiness, efficiency and cost-cutting to maximise the distance of a small budget tie together many channels. While at times offering useful advice for people looking to save money, the overall effect is to castigate low-wealth people for their position, and justify it as a choice rather than a systemic outcome.

Their consumption is stigmatised, reinforcing stereotypes of laziness attached to the socio-economically vulnerable. The videos often involve YouTuber’s dedicating their entire days to looking for bargains, coupons, special deals and free samples. Clearly, this proportion of time is not possible for most people working full-time. It also negates the social component of consumption, whether it be with colleagues for lunch, friends for dinner or drinks, or time with family.

The issue is not that low-cost substitutes are not available, it’s that activities of socialising are so connected to expenditure that low-wealth groups are marginalised and excluded from them. And through the monetisation of videos, these YouTubers are paid for their thriftiness. They are paid to exemplify a low-cost lifestyle, while people with low wealth are forced to do the same without reward or praise.

Take another brief example, LivingBobby, an American travel vlogger whose stated mission is to “empower individuals to travel farther and deeper.” He has a seven part series chronicling his efforts to live on $1 a day in New York. Less than six months later, Bobby is telling us about the best first class airline in the world. For him, living on a small amount of money is thrilling, exciting and rewarding. He is a tourist of poverty, conceptualising these hardships as an ‘experience’ rather than a reality, because he has the power to remove himself at any time.

Helping or harnessing?

The economic disadvantages of local populations are only addressed through the lens of humanitarianism. Their neediness offers an ethical basis for travel vlogging.

Traversing a system depicted as unruly, unregulated, immoral and dangerous enables these vloggers to justify the humanitarianism they travel to participate in. The local population are viewed as needing education and assistance to build better lives and improve their wellbeing.

It reflects the geopolitical power held by leading Western powers — especially North American, British and Australian — through both the government support of humanitarian aid and the rhetoric used by participants which confirm their positions of power. A key part of this is their mobility (as opposed to the immobile and permanent locals). This is their ability to enter, leave, and interact with the local population, often as part of an intensely self-motivated project of improving one’s knowledge, character and experience.

…Local residents are constructed as uncomplicated victims of forces beyond their control, as living more ‘authentic’ lives, and of being helpless to overcome the structural poverty that is envisioned as defining their lives … Power is established through the ways local people are represented as endlessly welcoming or as victims, never as being agentic change-makers in their own lives.

(Muldoon and Mair, 2016: 275-7)

This internationalism is a new kind of cosmopolitanism, a cultural identity that is seen as embracing diversity rather than regressive nationalism and racism. It is heavily linked to the content of bloggers, but so too is personal identity, which is the ‘brand’ of a YouTube travel vloggers channel and a component of what audiences are interested in viewing.

All these are imbued into a casual and informal format through blogging, which makes them accessible and engaging, especially because the viewer shares the experience of learning with the subject.

The subject of the content does not claim special knowledge or authority, but instead presents a singular subjective experience, which in itself holds a kind of legitimacy. The experience is authentic and the personalities of the vloggers, which viewers become accustomed to, react with the external environment, reflecting the value and position of the world in relation to our familiar protagonist.

Oppression, hardship, and conflict can therefore be good for business. Dropping the main character of a sitcom into an unfamiliar environment makes for instant entertainment.

The Mauritanian Railway

Yes Theory, 2021 — I Hitchhiked the World’s Deadliest Train (20hrs across the Sahara)

A perfect example of this group deliberately seeking out oppressive conditions for video content, is the recent trend of riding the Mauritanian Railway. This gigantic train, stretching over seven hundred kilometres, is used primarily for shipping primarily raw materials through the Sahara Desert. Locals in need of cheap travelling ride atop the carriages, braving the harsh conditions of excessive heat and danger for lack of options.

The spectacle of this journey, characterised by the inhospitable weather conditions, has become highly sought after by YouTube travel vloggers. The contrast between these professional travellers and desperate local workers couldn’t be sharper. While locals risk the journey for lack of a better option, the YouTuber’s arrive with expensive camera equipment and specially purchased clothing.

The awkward optics of this contrast are never formally acknowledged. Though one video description does note the ‘unfortunate death’ of numerous people each year taking the journey.

For this young spirited group, the metal and sand of the lumber-some train doesn’t represent industrial expansion and natural exploitation. It is instead an activity of adventure and a physical test akin to climbing a mountain.

They just brought me some tea. This is one of the best experiences of my life, drinking tea with locals on this train.

(PPPeter, 2018)

Another video describes the train as an ‘amazing attraction’ that is ‘undiscovered even by the most adventurous travellers’. It is seen as the ‘biggest adventure’ of the travellers lives, and they are riveted by the novelty of the experience. Some YouTubers are less emphatic about the experience. bald and bankrupt, well known in the travel vlogging community for his obsessive exploration of ex-Soviet artefacts across rural Russia, characterises the journey as the ‘worst train in Africa’ and expresses relief at the journey’s conclusion.

But the great majority of these videos view the train ride as a momentous expression of their uncompromising spirit.

Zu Beck, 2020 — ‘24 hours on a cargo train in the Sahara Desert

What is it in human nature that would make someone spend 24 hours on top of an exposed cargo train speeding across the Sahara Desert? I guess that’s a question I’m seeking an answer to as well.

(zu Beck, 2020)

For zu Beck — a Polish-Canadian social media influencer who has garnered over a million subscribers chronicling her travelling though non-Western countries — the empty lands of the train’s surroundings take on a mystical and spiritual dimension which the confines of Western civilisation cannot provide.

It’s one of those last remaining experiences that are so truly raw so truly pristine and completely unfiltered. This is the real deal. And that’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re here.

(zu Beck, 2020)

In a TEDx talk, Oxford educated zu Beck explains how she grew tired of living within the confines of “the system” in her marketing job in London and instead set out for adventure. There has, however, been some pushback against the ways in which YouTubers like zu Beck commodify the experiences of local populations.

In 2020, she drew harsh criticism from a group of scientists after refusing to abide by the government’s requests to leave Yemen’s Socotra Island — which has a population of just 60,000 people. While claiming to self-isolate on the island for fears of travelling and not having a “home” to return to, her decision was viewed as an extension of neo-colonialism. Ella al-Shamahi told Middle East Eye that:

If you’re travelling to a place where there is a risk that you’ll introduce disease and where the local people do not have immunity, you are doing something unethical. We have a long, long history of western explorers doing this to indigenous people.

(Allouche, 2020)

What are they searching for?

What does the trajectory of YouTubers like zu Beck tell us about the capitalist condition? And apart from carving out a career and recognition, what is it that this group are seeking when travelling?

There are constant references to the spiritual and ethical dimensions of interactions, and revering of the dignified simplicity of local workers. Their humbleness and openness in the absence of materialism are virtues to be imitated but not entirely replicated, for the motive of material accumulation drives the production of content.

It is the separation of work from value that stimulates this curiosity. Westerners travel to idyllic destinations largely in search of connection. They are alienated from their employment, discnonected from any sense of community other than entrenched nationalism, and the exhausting life in a competitive and unrewarding hyper-marketised society is relentless.

There is no true recreation or enjoyment possible in their daily lives, as social occasions and activities are mediated through expenditure and capitalist consumption. Even travelling, which has long been a reserved period of stress-free relaxation, has become an opportunity to produce content for friends and potentially monetise. The imperative to convert socialisation into capital strips its value and leaves the subject wanting.

Although the price and physical environment of travel destinations are clear incentives, the overriding drive to enter into a group related to each other beyond those formed through capital is profound.

For these YouTubers, the concept of community and interaction becomes a novelty, fetishised in its idealism and simplicity in contrast to western technological alienation.

In their home countries, their interchangeability are under-stimulating and frustrating. Forging an identity within their home environment is too difficult, while the immediacy with which being a ‘foreigner’ — importantly not an imposition of the system but rather a benefit (contributing through wealth) — preforms an identity is alluring. And to become the main character not only in your own life but in others too.

In this way, by travelling, communicating, and broadcasting their journeys, they feel that they truly exist. The tragedy is that in their attempt to escape the alienating conditions of Western-capitalism, they are the ones replicating and expanding its reach. They involve ‘locals’ in a nexus of production-consumption through YouTube advertising, monetisation, Google algorithms and user-data that forms the foundation of 21st century capitalism.

But many YouTube creators are faintly aware of this. At a certain point, they retreat from their adventurous living with enough money to buy houses, cars, and fund lavish lifestyles in their home countries. Having made their fortune through objectifying local populations and their lives, they complete the cultural arbitrage by returning to advanced-capitalist states — with their money too.

The background characters of the travel vlogs return to their normal lives, largely unaware that they have accumulated such a large amount of revenue for Google, YouTube, and the travel vloggers.


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