Lights, camera, action! Fandoms and the powerful pilgrimage of film tourism

2018-04-20 13:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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YouTube/Marvel Entertainment

Cape Town - The tourism industry hasn't had it this good ever. As the number of worldwide travellers continues to rise, more countries, cities and towns are gearing up to grow this industry.

With tourism comes job creation and economic stimulation, and a big boost for many hot spots has been thanks to the influence of pop culture - filtered through movies, books and TV shows that bring forgotten corners of the world to the attention of the media-consuming masses. And tourism boards are increasingly using the passion of fandoms to promote their countries and regions. 

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If you traverse any corner of the Internet, you will come across some serious fandoms that take their fantasy world very seriously, almost to a religious level. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Game of Thrones are some of the iconic ones, but they all share a serious dedication.

And for them to visit the street or island or castle featured of their fantasy in real life is an important pilgrimage that many make.

Lecturers Charlene Herselman and Hannes Engelbrecht from the University of Pretoria sees this film tourism as having great potential for South Africa, a niche market that can be exploited to grow the country's tourist offerings and bring tourism benefits to corners of the country that may not get the crowds the traditional way.

SEE: #FilmTourism: SA's billion-rand film industry shines spotlight on Mzansi's Sun City

The best way to grow this according to Herselman is to develop a stronger relationship between tourism boards and film commissions. "There's nothing stopping a film commission from giving the tourism board a heads up if they come across a film production that fits in with the destination's image and getting buy-in from the tourism industry."

This can be a mutually beneficial relationship. Tourism can benefit from the creative industry which helps improve the image and context of countries and regions in terms of destination development, and the film industry can benefit by opening up funding opportunities and using tourist guides on site and as location scouts with their in-depth knowledge of an area.

With the surge of worldwide tourism, however, a new term has started to take on a very negative meaning for locals unlucky enough to live in and around tourist traps. 'Mass tourism' has now become synonymous with overcrowding, increase in living costs and the rejection of the local for the international. Anti-tourism protests have been slowly spreading from city to city, with Barcelona leading the charge as tourist numbers have pushed out locals. Venice has seen similar problems, and in Amsterdam the city has started to push back hard against tourism activities hindering local life.

Although the use of a location in a movie, book or TV show has normally been welcomed, not only providing tourism jobs afterwards but also building the film industry within that country, unintended side-effects can be damaging depending on the context that the place is shown in. 

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In Dubrovnik, Croatia, pop tourism has had an even more devastating effect. It has become a stalwart for the biggest show on TV - Game of Thrones - and also recently featured in the latest Star Wars movie, set to increase the popularity of this old city.

The intense overcrowding however has put its World Heritage status at risk with UNESCO, which has led to the city taking steps to cut tourist numbers by more than half, as well as limiting the number of cruises that dock there, according to CNN. There has also been concern that people become too focused on the fictional places it represents rather than the actual heritage value of Dubrovnik.

Some places however have only had positive experiences with being the star of a show or movie. New Zealand has completely monopolised the Lord of the Rings tourism market, even making it a major part of their national airline's image. So far it's been well-managed as tourists come for the franchise but stay for the natural beauty, and it doesn't rework the lived experiences of locals.

Northern Ireland, another popular location for Game of Thrones, is seeing a massive return on their investment in the show, which they give big tax breaks while HBO filmed in the country. According to BBC, it has brought in almost £150 million since filming started in 2010, all going to the local economy, especially through tourism. "People come for Game of Thrones and stay for Northern Ireland," an official of Tourism Northern Ireland told BBC, and this is a sentiment that many governments approach when it comes to filming in their countries.

Herselman however believes that film tourism could actually help overtourism.

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In South Africa, the record-breaking Black Panther has many ties to the country's culture, with isiXhosa used as the language of the technologically advanced African country Wakanda. Engelbrecht noted that this can be used in marketing places like the Eastern Cape and Golden Gate Highlands National Park, where some aerial footage was shot for the film. 

Film tourism also includes once-off events like film premieres, international film festivals like in Durban, fan conventions and built set studio tours like the Cape Town Film studios where big set pieces for the Black Sails TV show could become tour attractions. The famous Comic-Con event is also coming to South Africa later this year, and it sold out tickets within weeks of the announcement.

The local tourism industry isn't spotlighting areas where big films were shot, like District Nine and Oscar-winner Tsotsi, and even the big Hulk-Ironman fight in Avengers: Age of Ultron that was filmed in the streets of Johannesburg. Engelbrecht says that the industry needs to focus on small products, like studio tours in Cape Town, and build up the niche market from there.

We also have big local stars that made it on the international circuit, like Charlize Theron and Trevor Noah, and this is another stream we can tap into, but we should also look at promoting spots where locally-made films were made. The current success of Five Fingers for Marseilles was filmed in the village of Lady Gray in Eastern Cape, and could provide opportunities for film-based tours, and the Afrikaans-film genre can also generate tours across the country.

The main challenge to create the recognition among fans relates to South Africa's presence in films. Locations from our country may be used, but the audience may not know that. The award-winning The Crown series on Netflix that follows the life of Queen Elizabeth II and although many scenes in the last season were shot all around South Africa, they were all represented as other places.

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Film tourism is thus a tourism stream that can be very fruitful for many, as long as the two industries talk to each other and agency remains with local communities, giving them the power to frame how their history and culture is experienced by tourists brought there by the imagination of the creative industry.