Like many other aspiring travel destinations, the island of Eroda knew it needed a tourism campaign.
Having launched an official website, social media presence and ploughed a small fortune into online advertising, it began promoting rustic attractions and romantic landscape to thousands of potential visitors around the world.
“Plan your trip to Eroda today!” proclaimed the adverts. Something that would be far easier to do, were it a real place.
Unfortunately, for the tens of thousands of curious would-be holiday-makers no such island appears to exist.
THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND OF ERODA
Riffing off the tourism slogans of other countries such as “Pure New Zealand” and “Inspired by Iceland”, the tourism board of Eroda settled with the suitably gnomic: “Eroda, No Land Quite Like It”.
Over the past month people around the world have been served up phony tourism ads for the island. From Australia to Germany and the US, potential tourists have agreed the island escape “sounds pretty tempting”.
No Land Quite Like It #VisitEroda pic.twitter.com/QAbyUlWWbG
Despite its purely fictional location, the Twitter account has gained 17,000 followers in just weeks.
“Book your next Oceanside adventure,” compels the advertisement copy.
Similar sponsored links have been appearing on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Spotify, with similar brochure-friendly text saying: “Watch the sunrise from your bedroom window from Eroda’s largest town and port.”
For the curious travellers who did take the bait, they were redirected to a website called visiteroda.com.
In the name of travel blogging, I too followed the link. To my relief, visiteroda.com was not a hotbed of malicious computer viruses, nor a site for mail-order Erodean brides.
Surprisingly, visiteroda.com appears to be a fairly normal tourism website. The only difference is, real tourism sites have a destination to sell.
Find our travel brochure! #VisitEroda pic.twitter.com/RCOsn7TDhV
Catch a ride to one of the neighboring islands – your next adventure is just a short ride away. Our recommendation? Avoid leaving Eroda on odd numbered days… #VisitEroda pic.twitter.com/IQ1PnEpWAm
Martin’s Heaven Bed and Breakfast is a charming place to stay when you plan your visit to Eroda! #VisitEroda pic.twitter.com/arkSUalkBg
Having spent a fair deal of time researching tourism destinations, it bore all the hallmarks of a lower-tier destination – with homespun whimsy and dodgy stock photos of a lesser Hebridean isle.
A page of attractions list features a diving school, tottering old ruins and at least three pubs. All of this would be endearing if it weren’t for tourism listings ending in mysterious non-sequiturs.
One pub tells travellers to “appease the Celtic water spirit Shenandoah”, another warns them “don’t mention a pig in the pub”, and another advises: “For extra good luck, make sure you wear one gold earring …”
It’s all a bit odd.
The destination has the unsettling quality of Twin Peaks meets The Wicker Man.
None of the accommodation options, tours or attractions are bookable. Contact details and external links just loop back to the main tourism page.
WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?
It’s the kind of thing that could be a stunt from a disgruntled tourism-rep-turned-conceptual-artist or a marketing student looking for extra credit.
However, a quick internet registry search shows there’s more to Eroda than meets the eye.
Perhaps the biggest fantasy told on the website is that it is copyright of Visit Eroda Tourism Board 2004.
According to a WHOIS domain search, the site was only registered a month ago, on October 28. The whole magical mystery tour takes another turn when looking for contact and site owners.
The campaign has launched many, many online ads.Source:Facebook
Visiteroda.com is registered to markmonitor.com, a third party domain management company used to hide the identity of a site’s real owners.
Whoever the Tourism Board of Eroda are, they like their privacy.
This careful planning, along with what must be a considerable advertising budget, suggests Eroda is no cottage tourism industry. The Facebook ad library alone holds no fewer than 68 adverts for the travel company.
Despite the maddening fact Eroda does not exist, the website has inspired internet sleuths to go searching for the island – or, at least, the originators of its tourism campaign.
THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
Perhaps one of the earliest people to call out the site and start looking for answers was 24-year-old Austin Strifler from Missouri.
Mr Strifler’s own Twitter thread diving down the rabbit hole into the Eroda mystery has earned a sizeable following.
“I just saw a weird ad on Twitter and started looking into things,” he said when asked what hooked him on the mystery. “My curiosity just spiralled.”
i went to ALL (like 5-6) PAGES ON THIS WEBSITE…AND NONE OF THEM HAVE ANY LINKS TO BOOK HOTELS OR FLIGHTS OR TRAVEL EXPERIENCES OR ANY OTHER WAY FOR THEM TO GIVE YOU MONEYhttps://t.co/DDt1pi1RGd
When asked how sure he was that Eroda couldn’t be a real place, Mr Strifler said he’d spent hours stalking the imaginary travel company.
“I checked everywhere possible and I’m as sure as one can be, really,” he said.
“I might be more convinced if I hadn’t traced all the non-stock images to real-world places that are definitely not Eroda.”
Using reverse image searches, Mr Strifler’s main leads were that a lot of the stock photography came from near or around St Abbs, North East Scotland.
Other Twitter users have guessed that Mr Strifler himself might be behind the hoax, having caught on to the Eroda mystery very early on. He denies such speculation saying: “I genuinely wish I had the knowledge, talent, creativity and advertising dollars to create something like this,” never expecting the wry tweets to reach more than his friends.
Perhaps the most convincing lead came from looking at the adverts’ targeting settings. The Facebook ads seemed to be targeted at people who had also visited hstyles.co.uk, the official website of the musician Harry Styles.
“To me the most concrete connection I personally see is to Harry Styles and his upcoming album,” Mr Strifler said.
So #VisitEroda is a thing and I just got an advert for it while watching Jacksepticeye and it freaked me out because I was looking into their website so see what it was all about. Does @Harry_Styles actually have something to do with it or not?
Anyway here’s the advert I recorded pic.twitter.com/4og0Aw3YD5
the only connection i have with eroda and fish and harry styles is the fact that the Fine Line album cover was taken with a fish-eye lens???? @visiteroda #visiteroda pic.twitter.com/bFm5XCXls7
Is Eroda even a person? Is Eroda an emotion? Is she a place? We don’t know… #VisitEroda @Harry_Styles pic.twitter.com/T6TTwJbu4q
Much of the internet has followed this speculation, with the former One Direction star having filmed a music video in St Abbs the month prior.
Perhaps it is just a piece of viral internet marketing. But as yet there is no confirmed link.
I reached out for comment to Columbia Records, with whom Styles’ upcoming album is being recorded, but they are yet to respond.
While few holiday planners have been taken in by the internet hoax – and those that were, were suitably frustrated – it does bring out a more sceptical side to all tourism and travel marketing.
If you can make an imaginary holiday island sound this tempting, how can we ever trust that there really is “Nothing like Australia” or that “It’s more fun in the Philippines”?
But that being said, the mystery of Eroda as a travel destination is its own USP.
Asking Mr Strifler if – not knowing what he knows now – he would take a vacation in the fictional Eroda, he says of course he would, “but I wouldn’t want to go alone. The whole thing is still a bit unsettling”.
This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald and was reproduced with permission
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