Keep­ing it real

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

“I thought it would look more like Viet­nam,” said my fel­low river cruise pas­sen­ger. We are were sail­ing along the Ir­rawaddy in Myan­mar, both of us lean­ing on deck rail­ings, tak­ing in the cool air of late after­noon and slow­pass­ing golden pagoda spires, pok­ing up from be­hind the river­ine for­est as if they were mo­men­tar­ily caught on a heav­en­wards as­cent.

I asked her what she thought Myan­mar would look like but she didn’t know. “Just dif­fer­ent to this,” she shrugged. “Maybe a bit more vi­brant.”

Funny how some des­ti­na­tions don’t ful­fil our ex­pec­ta­tions, even when we have no sense of the place be­fore we set off. This pas­sen­ger would have been the per­fect sucker for the Real is Beau­ti­ful cam­paign launched by Lithua­nia’s tourism min­istry late last year.

All went swim­mingly un­til it was re­vealed the agency hired to cre­ate the col­lat­eral sim­ply used the cheap­est pos­si­ble stock shots of bet­ter-known Euro­pean des­ti­na­tions, such as Slo­vakia and Fin­land, to en­hance the breath­less blurbs: “Lithua­nia is a place where real things mat­ter. Things don’t have to be per­fect to be beau­ti­ful, and we’re proud of our lit­tle im­per­fec­tions. We see the beauty in all of them. That’s the think­ing be­hind our new tourism slo­gan. We want you to en­joy a coun­try with­out make-up. Sin­cere. Real.”

The depart­ment head has been forced to re­sign amid mock­ery and mirth af­ter claim­ing the im­ages of other (pos­si­bly more at­trac­tive) des­ti­na­tions were suf­fi­cient to “com­mu­ni­cate emo­tion”. How funny that the “cre­atives” thought no one would no­tice, pos­si­bly be­cause few of us know much about Lithua­nia. Tourism there is hardly boom­ing, yet view­ing (real) im­ages on­line, there is plenty to ad­mire. Maybe it is an in­spired fluke be­cause now I, for one, want to see what the coun­try re­ally does look like.

Since the news broke this month, so­cial me­dia has been agog with tweets and In­sta­gram and Face­book pic­tures and links that show, say, the River Thames and the Lon­don Eye with cap­tions read­ing “Wel­come to Vil­nius!” The cap­i­tal of Lithua­nia ac­tu­ally looks beau­ti­ful, with a UNESCO World Her­itage-listed Old Town, which makes the need for de­cep­tion even harder to be­lieve. There are cas­tles, palaces and na­tional parks.

Vil­nius is a pop­u­lar city for stag week­ends. Companies with names like Baltic Stags sell pack­ages to Brit blokes be­hav­ing badly and they would be un­likely to re­mem­ber where they were any­way. Vil­nius? Bratislava? They all look the blink­ing same. Un­real is beau­ti­ful, baby.

Now I read that Lithua­nian Prime Min­is­ter Saulius Skver­nelis, who sounds like quite a fun­ster, has been crit­i­cised for mak­ing light of the mat­ter by post­ing a photo of the Euro­pean Union’s head­quar­ters in Brus­sels on his tourism min­istry’s of­fi­cial Face­book site with the cap­tion: “We are mov­ing gov­ern­ment to this build­ing to­mor­row. Real is beau­ti­ful.” It has since dis­ap­peared and all the fake im­ages have been re­moved, too. Pity. I’ve al­ways wanted to go to Slo­vakia and Bel­gium.

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