Flying 5000 Miles Based on a Lie

(or, how perhaps travel agents aren’t obsolete after all)

A couple years ago I came across this picture on Pinterest.

It was labeled as ‘Gudvangen, Norway.’ Awestruck, I resolved to move Norway up on my travel wishlist. (One of my last trips—to India—was similarly inspired by the desire to see in person the breathtaking imagery I’d seen on a screen, in that case the landscapes and edifices in the gorgeous movie The Fall.)

Finally, in May 2017, I went to Norway. Gudvangen, expected to be the highlight of the trip, was conveniently located between Bergen and Oslo and thus in the middle of my itinerary. I bought a train ticket from Bergen to Flåm, where most travelers pass through before moving onward to Gudvangen via bus or ferry. (Sidenote—this journey concludes with the famed Flåm Railway, which, although it is priced vastly more per kilometer than the first leg, is inferior in terms of scenery, IMHO.)

In Gudvangen I checked in to my hostel, then hightailed it to the tourist office where I hoped to get directions to this incredible viewpoint. The first sign that something was amiss was that this pointy mountain was completely absent from the posters and brochures in the office. Given its significant internet popularity, one would have expected the view to be splashed across everything in sight.

So I inquired with an employee, showing him the photo on my phone. “Hmmm I’ve never seen that before, but I’m from Bulgaria and I haven’t been here very long,” he said. “Let me ask my Norwegian colleague.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s up in the Lofoten Islands,” the young Norwegian said, with a hint of amusement in his voice. In disbelief, I showed him the results when you Google Gudvangen.

“There it is! The main photo for Gudvangen on Google!” I said with vindication. I insisted that Google, and not this Norwegian, must be ultimately correct. He shook his head apologetically. Nope, not here. Wanting to solve the mystery, he did a little more digging until he determined its true location: Reine, a village 1000 miles away in the Lofoten Islands. A place whose name is attached to one of the images (outlined in blue) in the first page of results for ‘Gudvangen’ on Pinterest.

One of the the photos is confusingly labeled with both locations, but most indicate this photo is taken in Gudvangen. “But hey,” the tech-savvy reader might say, “that’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy! Why not try searching by image? An excellent idea, to be sure. Unfortunately, the results are equally inconclusive.

Although this image seems to appear on two lists of beautiful places, it is in fact nowhere to be found on either site—as if the uncertainty surrounding the picture’s provenance eliminated it from inclusion at some point. See for yourself, on CN Traveler.

This saga (and yes, I use that word deliberately given the Nordic circumstances of my story) taught me some important lessons about travel, and raised new questions about how much trust we put into technology. For instance, when Google uses an image in its handy consolidated info card about a person or place, what verification is happening? If you try a few searches, you’ll find that these images are drawn from random websites; many of which may themselves have accuracy issues. The Gudvangen picture in question was sourced from NorwegianFjordsCruise.com, a website whose content is best exemplified by the following:

Nærøyfjord, one of Norway’s most popular 2017 tourist destinations is a fjord formed when a glacier retreats, after carving its typical U-shaped valley, and the sea fills the resulting valley floor. Norwegian Fjords cruises are fantastic ways to explore magical fjords, beautiful islands, crystal clear waters, fantastic food, among other things. However, there are steps you can take in order to ensure you get the utmost enjoyment from your relaxing cruise holiday.

Given the strange syntax and forced use of certain phrases, this was likely written by an overseas content farm to make the website as appealing as possible to Google’s SEO bots and appear high in the search results. Such a strategy may or may not be related to Google’s choice of thumbnail image, but fortunately Google does offer users the ability to report an image if it is offensive, incorrect, or otherwise inappropriate. That I did, and this is what a search for Gudvangen looks like today:

Success! Now fewer future travelers will face the same fate that I did, 1000 miles from the photo they flew 5000 miles to take. (Yes, the image is still mislabeled across the internet, but this is a big step in the right direction.) And who knows, perhaps this whole thing never would have happened 30 years ago, when I might have seen a picture in a guidebook to Norway or on the wall at a travel agency, both of which would have been more reliable sources of information than the internet. But this is the world we live in, when misinformation, even something as innocuous as a mislabeled photo, can spread like a virus as people re-pin and re-post, helping a simple slip-up become our collective truth.

Hopefully one day I’ll make it up to the Lofoten Islands to get my deferred dream shot. And to the Norwegian Tourism Board, if you happen to read this…I’d gladly accept a free trip back in exchange for helping straighten out this silly situation ;)