Tourists flock to popular film and TV sites

Lights! Camera! Action!

Peter-Johansen-Bon-VoyageOTTAWA, ON, Aug 10, 2014/ Troy Media/ – What do Norway, Albuquerque and Steveston, B.C., have in common?

They’re all cashing in on tourists who visit places where their favourite movies and TV series are shot. Experts call it film tourism, and they say it’s growing in popularity and economic value.

Take Norway. It’s the inspiration for Frozen, which debuted in November and is already the highest-grossing animated film in history. A 12th-century neighbourhood in the west coast city of Bergen, together with the country’s famous fjords, inspired the film’s fictional setting.

The production has led to a 37 per cent spike in Norwegian hotel stays during the first three months of 2014, compared to the same period last year. Tour operator Wilderness Travel has had to create three new Norwegian itineraries to meet demand. Disney Cruise Line is sailing there for the first time.

Meanwhile, Albuquerque is the setting for Breaking Bad, an award-winning television series about chemistry teacher Walter White, who’s dying of cancer and funds a nest egg for his family by producing and selling the drug crystal meth.

The city’s tourism website features a map of sites seen in the series. Tour operators guide tourists by trolley, bicycle, limousine – even an RV that’s a replica of one in the show; they all consistently sell out. Visitors can buy the blue candy that serves as crystal meth on the show, enrol in Breaking Bad cooking classes, soak in “blue meth bath salts,” or drink a local brew dubbed Walt’s White Lie.

And then there’s Once Upon a Time, an ABC-TV series that features big name actors such as Robert Carlyle. They portray fairy-tale characters who’ve lost their identity through a curse and now reside in fictional Storybrooke, Maine.

Steveston, a Vancouver suburb, stands in for Storybrooke. According to Ed Gavsie, head of visitor services at Tourism Richmond, the area now sees more than 300 visitors a day – up from the 30 to 40 it drew before the program aired. One mother and daughter came from Puerto Rico. A man said he was bringing his wife there for their 20th wedding anniversary.

The show has even replaced sampling seafood and visiting relatives as the top reason for visiting the area.

Though not widely studied, there’s scattered evidence that film tourism has such impact all over.

A Scottish study reports 43 per cent of respondents get holiday ideas from films or TV; 6 per cent have actually made a pilgrimage to a location associated with a favourite show. A Florida study found more than 20 per cent of out-of-state visitors said a movie or TV series contributed to their decision to visit.

Beautiful landscape, such as that of New Zealand in the Lord of the Rings films or of Thailand in The Beach, are just one motivation for such a pilgrimage, says Eugene Thomlinson, a tourism management professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. Other aspects also come into play.

“There are factors that come out of the movie, such as how the story line draws you into the program and creates a desire to visit,” he says. “There may be a connection between oneself and the show, whether it’s a feeling of adventure, mystery or whatever, and visiting gives an opportunity to feel that emotion again.”

Simon Hudson, director of a tourism development centre at the University of South Carolina, agrees: “In (the baseball film) Field of Dreams, it was just a field, so that wasn’t what drove people to Iowa. It really was the whole plot and the mystery that attracted the interested.”

He adds the movie Eat Pray Love, starring Julia Roberts, had influence on some women for the same reason. “If a movie is about some kind of new beginning, a personal journey, and has emotional impact, then it will resonate with people. That movie certainly inspired people to go (to Italy, India or Bali) to find themselves.”

But Hudson, who taught for several years at the University of Calgary, says film tourism reflects deeper social trends, too. This is a way for a celebrity-obsessed culture to connect with entertainment idols – “you may not see your favourite celebrity, but you can connect with them by seeing where they stood” – and it reflects changes in tourism itself.

It used to be that people were satisfied with passive vacations, such as lying on a beach. “They now want to be educated, to have a unique experience, to be more participatory, and film tourism keys into that,” he says.

Realizing what a successful show can bring, some tourism officials work proactively with producers to map out a strategy for promoting their destination, Thomlinson says: “Along Australia’s eastern seaboard, almost every aquarium has had a Nemo-related exhibit. For Lelo and Stitch, Hawaii Tourism added a background video about their state on the DVD.”

He’s consulting with tourism officials at Oak Bay, on Vancouver Island, for a 10-part series called Gracepoint, to debut on the Fox network in October.

But in general, Thomlinson adds, Canada is less successful than the U.S. at promoting film tourism, in part because shooting here is often meant to stand in for some other place, as when Brokeback Mountain’s Alberta locations were intended to be Wyoming.

But Steveston – the setting for Once Upon a Time – isn’t sitting back. Even daytrippers from Seattle will buy souvenirs and a meal, and that all contributes to the local economy, says Tourism Richmond’s Ed Gavsie. “People who overnight here will likely go whale watching, visit the Capilano suspension bridge, or whatever else, so there is some economic spinoff for other parts of our tourism industry.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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