A few years ago in a small office on the outskirts of Madrid I had one of the more awkward meetings of my career. We were there to look at the Spanish tourism people's new advertising work. The slogan was: Spain marks.
They were anxious to know how this pan-European campaign came over in English. I wanted to say, “It sounds like you've come back from holiday with some embarrassing stains to explain at the dry cleaners.” Instead, I settled for: “Perhaps the line works better in some languages than others. Bulgarian, maybe.”
There was a collective sigh from the Spanish side of the table. The trouble was, they'd gone to a lot of trouble coming up with a short phrase that summed up the many delights of their country. All tourist boards do. Groupthink kicks in and you wouldn't want to be the person timidly saying: “But Minister, I think 'Panama stays in you' might be misconstrued.”
Occasionally, they nail it. I've just got back from New Zealand, where the slogan “100% Pure”, aided by killer typography, promises in eight characters that you'll return from your trip a better, healthier traveller. Japan's “Endless Discovery” is another. As marketing people say, these words contains a benefit, something that's harder to locate in “Fiji Me” or “Go to Hungary”.
That last line is an example of the literalism that tourist boards fall back on when politics and language fails them. I kind of admire the Teutonic, Ronseal-ish bluntness of “Germany – the travel destination”. But our own lot didn't display the national gift for creative flair that we're always boasting about with “Welcome to GREAT Britain”. I bet there's a flipchart somewhere with something much cooler written on it. Reaching for the CAPS LOCK button is the last resort. Ask the people behind “I feel SLOVEnia”.
Trawling through the slogans, my favourite came not from a tourist board but a plucky tour operator in Somalia. “Africa on the edge” manages to be both geographically accurate and a handy way of saying that if Mogadishu didn't prove to have the Singaporean levels of cleanliness and safety you expect, you can't say you weren't warned.
Another edgy African country goes for the unexceptionable “Fascinating Nigeria”. It's just a pity that beneath the entry on my Google page are the words: “This site may be hacked”.
Mark Jones is editorial director at British Airways' 'High Life' and Cathay Pacific's 'Discovery' magazines