“Done laid around, done stayed around
this old town too long
and I feel like I want to to travel on”
Harry Belafonte – “Done Laid Around (Gotta Travel On)”
(From the movie “The World, The Flesh and the Devil”)
It seems like everywhere I’ve visited recently has some movie or TV show sparking tourism. For example, in New Zealand, Lord of the Rings-themed tours are common and Northern Ireland and Malta (above) both have similar options for fans of Game of Thrones. This is completely unsurprising given the beauty of the scenery and the popularity of each of those productions. This boost in TV tourism is a great benefit for local and national economies hoping to generate substantial tourism revenue. But is Hollywood’s impact on tourism always a good thing?
From a strictly economic perspective, if Hollywood can spark tourism and help small and large businesses thrive, that’s clearly a positive outcome. This phenomenon has created a whole new category of travel called “TV Tourism” or “Set-Jetting”. The popularity of certain Hollywood productions is leading people to make their vacation choices based on what TV shows or movies they like the most. Conde Nast Traveler stated that 20% of travelers have visited a place because they saw it on TV or in a movie and BizReport reported that 10% of tourists actually picked their vacation destination based on their favorite Hollywood production.
This emerging tourism category is a major win for tourism and for small businesses. According to The Guardian, set-jetting generated £100 – £140 million in Britain in 2014 from shows like Downton Abbey, the Harry Potter series, and even the animated film Brave. According to Bizreport.com small businesses have directly benefited from this growth in tourism.
Further, travel not only benefits local and national economies but also the tourists themselves. If some Hollywood production can inspire people to travel somewhere new, then Hollywood is making a positive impact. Research supports my strong opinion that many of today’s societal issues (i.e., intolerance and closed-mindedness) could be mitigated if more people traveled. An increasingly divisive political landscape and the unfortunate coverage of the continued racial and ethnic tensions in the US and around the world are both examples of issues that could be mitigated through travel and exposure to other cultures. Travel promotes tolerance, sympathy, and inclusion so if people decide to visit New Zealand because they liked the Lord of the Rings films, that’s unquestionably a great outcome.
The Bad & The Ugly
However, this growth of TV tourism has some negative consequences as well… nothing is perfect after all. For example, in Dubrovnik, already an incredibly popular tourist destination, overcrowding inside the city’s walls has become increasingly problematic in recent years as the popularity of Game of Thrones is driving tourists there in droves. This upsets the locals whose homes are overrun by tourists while the tourist experience may be negatively affected by long lines and crowded sites.
TV tourism also affects natural phenomena. In Malta, disruptive film crews and increasing tourist numbers put the famous but delicate Azure Window at risk before it was tragically destroyed in a storm. While it’s great that GoT has driven tourism to Malta, there is an increasing need to monitor and mitigate the negative impacts of overcrowding and film production.
Beyond the impact of overcrowding, Hollywood has a tendency to distort history in favor of entertainment. Phrases like “Based on a True Story” or “Based on Actual Events” are ambiguous enough to allow for substantial creative freedom while ignoring relevant historical facts. Even documentaries are criticized for getting the facts wrong. While this creative freedom is mostly harmless and often hugely entertaining, Hollywood is rightly criticized for its misrepresentations.
For example, my good friend (Jill) just returned from Colombia where several recent productions, mostly notably Narcos, have portrayed the life of Pablo Escobar. While it’s great that attention is being paid to the history of the drug war in Colombia, Jill’s conversations with several Colombians illuminated some less-than-desirable outcomes. Apparently, Narcos’ portrayal of Escobar has turned him into something of a cult hero among tourists and even among some younger Colombians. While the show does portray Escobar’s criminal activity, it falls short of demonizing him and does a disservice to the thousands of individuals and families who lived through the trauma and violence in Medellin and throughout Colombia during Escobar’s reign. It reminds me of some of the mafia movies of the past 30+ years where it’s clear that there is criminal activity but the main mob characters are clearly the protagonists and in many ways portrayed as likable despite their deviance.
In addition to its distortion of historical facts, Hollywood has certainly also played a role in perpetuating some racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes. There are a plethora of examples of regular stereotypes in television and film that have been covered extensively here and here and here and here and here. Ultimately, there is a struggle between the open-mindedness that travel can create and the closed-mindedness associated with repeated Hollywood stereotypes. I really hope that people who visit a new place, regardless of their reason for doing so, are open to learning about the culture rather that stubbornly adhering to their preconceived notions.
In the end, I think the benefits of travel outweigh the negative aspects of TV Tourism or Set-Jetting. I’d rather people travel more than sit on their couch and watch more TV. However, state and local authorities do need to do their part to protect nature, maintain the quality of life for local residents, and maintain the quality of the experience for tourists. Further, I think part of the responsibility lies with tour operators to present information that educates tourists and helps them separate fiction from fact. There may even be opportunities for museums to get creative with how they present historical and cultural information.
What about you? Have you ever gone somewhere specifically because of a TV show or movie? Did it match your expectations?