In early April, to celebrate 250 years since the country became the first in the world to abolish censorship, the Swedish Tourist Association created a line anyone can call to “get connected to a random Swede and talk about anything.” (It’s +46 771 793 336, for those who want to test that claim.)
Sweden’s new number is a great gimmick, but it follows a grand tradition of hilarious and occasionally bizarre publicity stunts aimed at luring visitors to destinations around the world.
Here are seven that give this instant classic a run for its money:
1. In 2009, police officers in Kalona, Iowa—population 2,500—started pulling over cars with out-of-state license plates and inviting them to stay overnight in their town with free room and board. On their way out of town, takers were given a gift basket and T-shirt that said, “Ask me about Kalona, Iowa.” We checked with the Kalona Chamber of Commerce. This actually happened.
2. Tourism to Japan tanked after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. To save the industry the country turned to icons of its feudal past: ninjas. In 2015, government officials, dressed as spies and assassins, announced the "Ninja Council" to promote all things ninja in Japan, including an actual university course in “ninja studies.” (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Council? Just think about it, New York City.)
3. In December 2007, the hotel chain Travelodge began offering a free night's stay to married couples with the names of Mary and Joseph during the Twelve Days of Christmas. (It’s unclear if the offer comes with barn animals or a virgin birth.) Turns out there was room at the inn, at least at the company's U.K. locations.
4. Icelandair has been offering transatlantic travelers the chance to extend their layover in Reykjavík for free—well, at no additional airfare cost—since 1960. (The latest iteration of the program even promises to hook you up with your very own Icelander, a “stopover buddy,” to show you around the land of elves, vikings, and Björk.) Finnair and Air Canada are two of the latest airlines to take Icelandair's ingenius lead.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
5. In 2014, the U.K. budget airline Jet2 sent its staff—clad, for some reason, in red Morphsuits—out on the streets of Derby, England, to hand out free travel packages. What could possibly go wrong? If you guessed that a mob of overeager would-be holidaygoers chased a handful of terrified airline employees through the streets, you’d be right.
6. The Province of Guizhou in southwestern China is one of relatively few places in the country not plagued by hazardous smog. To capitalize on this selling point, the province hatched a new scheme to draw tourists: manufacturing cans of "fresh air."
7. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” represents one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time. But despite being instantly recognizable, it isn't the original slogan. That would be “What happens here, stays here.” Yet the idea behind the initial tagline, which debuted in 2003, was so spot-on it took on a life of its own. It also worked: The campaign, in all its variations, has driven millions of tourists to Sin City over the years.