Pop culture's influence on tourism: good or bad?

2018-01-27 12:57 - Gabi Zietsman
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Black Panther (Photo: YouTube/Marvel Entertainment)

The tourism industry hasn't had it this good ever. With worldwide visitor numbers continuing 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. Pop culture writer Lincoln Geraghty compared this to actual religious pilgrimages to sacred sites. "Taking pictures of buildings, landscapes and people at these popular media sites becomes a way of affirming their affection for the show," writes Geraghty.

I myself have also been privy to this kind of 'pilgrimage' on a recent trip to England, with a very intent purpose to visit the Warner Bros. studio to take a tour of its Harry Potter section. I have been a fan since my early childhood, and to be able to see the 'real' artefacts used in the film series is an almost spiritual experience. Based on the hundreds of fellow fans that toured the displays, it's easy to see why fandoms are a lucrative tourism market.

Me posing with one of the iconic props at Warner Bros Studios. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

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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. According to Time, the insane success of the book Eat Pray Love put Bali on a global map that turned an Australian beach getaway into a spiritual hub where you can 'find yourself'.

Cultural and environmental indiscretions however arise easily when tourists are only informed by the context that they've experienced the location in, and could be ignorant of other nuances that come with their visit. This is especially true in a Bloomberg story about TV tourism on offer in Columbia after the huge success of the Narcos TV show, which follows, and glamorises, the life of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

His deadly reign saw the deaths of thousands of people, yet tourism operators, including Escobar's own brothers, have started to cash in on the Narcos-craze by showing off possessions and properties linked to the gangster, elevating him to celebrity status. For many Columbians, the wounds are still too fresh and this kind of tourism offerings are very offensive and even traumatising. A local mayor would rather focus on memorialising the victims of his reign, and tell the horrifying truth of drug trafficking without the Hollywood trimmings, and he even called out musician Wiz Khalifa about posting an Instagram photo of him posing at Escobar's Grave.

One tourist even told Bloomberg that he partook in one of these Escobar tours early on, but the longer he stayed in the country the more uncomfortable he felt about it.

A post shared by Wiz Khalifa (@wizkhalifa) on

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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.

It can also be detrimental for the tourists themselves. The music video for the biggest song of the year, Despacito, not only broke the record for most views on YouTube, but it has also attracted many fans to the Puerto Rico slum where it was filmed. This kind of 'slum tourism' however has been heavily criticised, using people's neighbourhoods as attractions where poverty is rife and wilfully neglected by the government, and also placing ignorant tourists in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world. 

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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 gave 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.

Pop culture tourism is thus a tourism stream that can be fruitful for many, as long as 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 Hollywood.

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