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(CNN) — When they’re good, they’re iconic. When they’re bad — well, at least you can usually laugh. We’re talking destination campaigns — when travel hotspots make a bid for your hard-earned vacation cash by producing extravagant videos and entire websites to grab your attention.
So how have they been this year — the first year since the pandemic started with few restrictions for most of us travelers? With destinations desperate for post-lockdown cash, we’ve seen exorbitant amounts of money plowed into getting celebrities on board, shooting the very finest footage of the locations, and, happily, some real imagination of how places want to present themselves.
From the weird (Iceland’s typing horses) to the wonderful (South Africa’s emotional reopening), the bad (as in evil — Sweden recreated “The Blair Witch Project”) to the controversial (David Beckham’s plug for Qatar), here are 15 of the videos that caught our attention this year.
South Africa: The rebirth
Released in March, when much of the world was still in lockdown, South Africa’s three-minute video was a brilliant take on how travel could look as things started opening up post-Omicron — a brave move, since the variant was first spotted in South Africa, and the country had faced immediate travel bans from many other (equally virus-filled) places.
A young woman looking bleak in dismal, dark and rainy London, emerges into the light in Cape Town — and everything turns technicolor. She goes for the classic South Africa experiences — a safari and trip to the Drakensberg escarpment, with the country’s natural beauty on full display — but the focus is on the human connections that everyone missed during lockdown.
She gets a massage, huddles with fellow surfers, rides along a beach at sunset and ends the video at a party. In other words, the dream. “Come as you are, leave as you’ll never be again. Live again!” ends the video. You may even shed a tear.
Sweden: Scandi horror flick
In it, a vacationing man, Sam, meets a beautiful woman — or is she? She is not; she is in fact a huldra, a creepy forest nymph. “What happened in the forest is something you will regard as a dream, but that is not how it is going to be,” Sweden warns.
The kicker: the short film ended by promoting “Kiln,” a “chilling audio story” by John Ajvide Indqvist that’s only downloadable “in the Swedish forest.” In fact, the story, not the video is the hub of the Spellbound by Sweden campaign. Once you’re over there, you can have a listen — if you’re brave enough.
Rwanda: Play with Lionel Messi
Legendary Paris Saint-Germain soccer stars including Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos headed south to Rwanda for Visit Rwanda’s 2022 campaign, “Tee off your next adventure in Rwanda,” which premiered just before the new year.
Opening with former goalkeeper Jérôme Alonzo playing golf during his retirement, the 100-second video follows his golf ball as it lands in the Parc des Princes stadium, is kicked about by the players, and then batted off to Rwanda, where it soars over its most spectacular landscapes.
It ends on a golf course with a little girl making it a hole in one — but not before, of course, some gorillas have made a cameo. A good call for this, the year of the World Cup.
Vilnius: Happy birthday to… who?
“Nobody knows where Vilnius is,” admits this characteristically inspired video from Lithuania’s capital. Previous campaigns have dubbed the city “the g-spot of Europe” and rewritten a Christmas carol (last year’s campaign was called “Christmas in Vilnius: Amazing wherever you think it is.”)
Said solution: a “belated birthday e-card collection.” The cheeky 80s-style video goes through various fun cards before telling you to send your own. You may forget the date, but the celebration will be unforgettable, it ends, calling Vilnius “700 years young.”
Uganda: Open your eyes
Uganda’s tourist board kicked off 2022 with a two-minute video showcasing the country’s beauty, from snowy mountain peaks to lush forested hills, calm lakes, pounding waterfalls and rivers that look like they were made for rafting.
But the focus swiftly turned to its people — eating ugali, sitting down with a drink, dancing, and going out on the town in Kampala’s nightclubs.
The best bit? Instead of being front and center, animals (including the classics — a chimp, a gorilla and a giraffe) only make fleeting cameos. “All we have to do is open our senses and enjoy what’s uniquely ours,” says the narrator. It’ll definitely open your senses to realize there’s more than safari tourism on offer.
Colombia: Literary power
Colombia Ministry of Tourism
In Spanish and English, it picks out different iterations of “warmth,” from beekeeper Humberto Narváez’s love of sustainability to Maria Eugenia Clavijo’s top notch treatment of her hotel guests.
“Even though we can feel it in every greet, every smile, every welcome and every cup of coffee we share, we wanted to understand it better. This is why we went out in the search for Colombian Warmth, and we went straight to its source: our people, those who carry it in their hearts,” said the tourist board, which also produced a one-minute video — though the latter is a bit traditional “smiling locals” style for our taste.
Philippines: The big (non) reveal
It’s a brave country that doesn’t show off a single destination in its expensive marketing campaign, but that’s what the Philippines did with its June video, “The People Make the Destination.”
“To make an ad you won’t skip, we skipped the ordinary… the sun, the sand, the actors, the drone shots, the pop songs, the special effects,” the video declares. They’re all gone in favor of “the people who have always made our destinations more memorable and more fun” — in other words, the two-minute video shows only people. Not people in situ, like Uganda’s ad, but people wearing one-pieces and doing Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics to form representations of famous places.
The group becomes hills, waterfalls, mountains, an ancient building, and even a giant bird of prey before turning into the ocean as a surfer rides the waves. “The people make the destination — it’s more fun with you,” reads the tagline.
The destinations are there, however — in the soundtrack, recorded in 23 spots across the Philippines, you’ll hear smashing waves from Samar, and T’boli instruments from South Cotobato. There are two videos: one stereo, and one binaural and immersive — the latter is best watched with headphones.
Switzerland: Road tripping with Anne and Roger
Tennis champ Roger Federer has been promoting his native Switzerland for several years, but in April he was joined by Anne Hathaway in a two-minute skit.
“Anne and Roger learned the hard way that no one upstages the Grand Tour of Switzerland” was the tagline, after the pair were shown becoming irate when viewing the rushes of their supposed ad for the country. In the skit, their close-up activities — from jumping over a glacier to a synchronized swim in an icy lake — had been replaced with wide shots, because the director felt that Switzerland was more impressive than even Federer’s abs.
“When you need an unbeatable road trip you need Switzerland,” it finished. Self-deprecating celebs get a thumbs up from us.
Great Britain: Beyond the chintz
The royals, the Cotswolds and now Brexit are probably what springs to mind for most people when they think of the UK, but Visit Britain’s 2022 campaign, which launched in February, eschewed the classics to show what else is on offer.
Welcome to Another Side of Britain spotlit Britain’s cities — which saw a huge drop in international visitors from both the pandemic and Brexit.
Morocco: Tripping the light
People tend to go to Morocco for tradition, but this video, released in May, takes those traditions (tajines, souks, Marrakech’s Badi Palace) and combines them with modern Morocco: golf in the dunes, modern dance in the Badi Palace, and spectacular art installations in the desert.
It cleverly managed to throw in shots of everything you go to Morocco for, yet infuse it with a contemporary edge. Nice work — and nice soundtrack, too.
Iceland: Ponies as personal assistants
Feel obliged to check your email while on vacation? There’s no need to worry about that if you choose Iceland, which has vowed to “Out-horse your email.”
The ad, released in May, claimed that Icelandic ponies have been trained to write out of office messages so that you don’t have to touch your phone.
“Nothing ruins your vacation like work,” starts the minute-long video, before showing seven horses tramping over a giant keyboard, crafting unintelligible replies.
Vienna: Let yourself go
The Austrian capital is staging a comeback with a surreal ad campaign.
It’s a full-on short film of nearly six minutes, in which a rotund stomach leaves his workout-obsessed human, Harry, because he no longer feels welcome.
Said belly takes off to Vienna where it wanders the streets, checks out sublime artworks, and enjoys some Sacher torte in its hotel bed. Eventually, Harry comes to find Belly, and the pair have a delightful date in a Viennese restaurant.
“The most beautiful way to love yourself is to indulge,” it ends. This seems to be a bit of a polarizer — it either speaks to you or it doesn’t — but it’s a cinematic watch whatever you think of the message.
Australia: See the sights with Rose Byrne
Australia’s nine-minute movie, “G’day,” racked up 19 million YouTube views in its first month alone. Promoting the new campaign “Come and say g’day,” the “Toy Story”-style film starred Rose Byrne as Ruby, a toy kangaroo, and Will Arnett as Louie, a toy unicorn.
The pair break out of a Great Barrier Reef gift shop and travel to Nitmiluk Gorge, Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House.
“Down Under, ‘g’day’ is the start of every good adventure,” says Byrne at the end, in person. “It’s our way of saying, ‘If you’re not a friend yet, you will be mate.'” Contrived? Sure, but the viewing numbers speak for themselves.
Late entry “Shall we play Korea,” which dropped in November, is a fun, snappy look at the country, with something for everyone, from family fun, through teenage dreams and adult groups to silver-haired couples on an outing together.
There’s road-tripping, golfing, paragliding and dancing K-pop style. See you there.
Qatar: Courting David Beckham
He also played football with a Qatari woman (“Female football is something I’ve always supported, and all the more so now especially for me now that I have a daughter.”)
But the criticism was swift and strong, with many flagging Qatar’s alleged human rights issues. Amnesty urged him to “speak out” about the treatment of migrant workers who were making the World Cup possible, while UK comedian Joe Lycett conducted a stunt pretending to burn (but ultimately donating to LGBT charities) nearly $12,000 in protest at Beckham’s rumored $184 million, 10-year gig.