"Plan your trip to Eroda today!"

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.

Eroda: There's no place like it. Photo / Supplied
Eroda: There's no place like it. Photo / Supplied

"Plan your trip to Eroda today!" proclaimed the adverts. Something that would be far easier to do, were a real place.

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Unfortunately, for the tens of thousands of curious would-be holidaymakers no such island appears to exist.

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."

Book your next oceanside adventure. Photo / Supplied
Book your next oceanside adventure. Photo / Supplied

Over the past month people around the world have been served up phoney tourism ads for the island. From Germany to the US and Australia, potential tourists have agreed that the island escape "sounds pretty tempting."

In spite of it's purely fictional location, the twitter account has gained 17000 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.

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To my relief visiteroda.com was not a hot bet of malicious computer viruses, nor a site for mail order Erodean brides.

Holiday planners have been lured in by attractive looking adverts. Photo / Supplied
Holiday planners have been lured in by attractive looking adverts. Photo / Supplied

Surprisingly visiteroda.com appears to be a fairly normal tourism website. The only difference being that real tourism sites have a destination to sell.

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 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", else 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.

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 that it is copyright of Visit Eroda Tourism Board 2004.

Whoever was behind visiteroda.com had a sizeable marketing budget. Photo / Supplied
Whoever was behind visiteroda.com had a sizeable marketing budget. Photo / Supplied

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.

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 that Eroda is no cottage tourism industry. The Facebook ad library alone holds no fewer than 68 adverts for the travel company.

In spite of the maddening fact that it does not exist, the website has inspired internet sleuths to go searching for the island - or, at least the originators of its tourism campaign.

Perhaps one of the earliest people to call out the site and start looking for answers was 24 year old Austin Strifler from Missouri.

Austin's own twitter thread diving down the rabbit hole into the Eroda mystery has earned a sizable following on Twitter.

Might Eroda be the Scottish village of St Abbs? Photo / Getty Images
Might Eroda be the Scottish village of St Abbs? Photo / Getty Images

"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."

When asked how sure he was that Eroda couldn't be a real place he replied that he'd spent hours stalking the imaginary travel company.

"I checked everywhere possible and I'm as sure as one can be, really. I might be more convinced if I hadn't traced all the non-stock images to real-world places that are definitely not Eroda."

The stock images used by the website appeared to be of elsewhere. Photo / Supplied
The stock images used by the website appeared to be of elsewhere. Photo / Supplied

Using reverse image searches his 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 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," admitted Strifler.

https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/?active_status=all&ad_type=all&country=ALL&impression_search_field=has_impressions_lifetime&view_all_page_id=108204760645539

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 Style's upcoming album is being recorded, however they are yet to respond.

Eroda might be a marketing campaign for UK musician Harry Styles. Photo / Supplied
Eroda might be a marketing campaign for UK musician Harry Styles. Photo / Supplied

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 skeptical 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 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."