For many destinations, an appearance in a beloved movie or TV series can be an enduring enticement for visitors.
By Eric Moya
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
The late New York Times film critic Vincent Canby once wrote, “Through the magic of motion pictures, someone who’s never left Peoria knows the softness of a Paris spring, the color of a Nile sunset [and] the sorts of vegetation one will find along the upper Amazon.”
But an ever increasing number of destination marketers aim to convert those moviegoers in the Midwest (and elsewhere) from passive viewers to globe-hopping visitors, and they’re hoping an appearance in a well- regarded film or TV show will become their destination’s path to stardom.
With the right marketing push behind the right show or movie, a destination “can benefit for years and years after a production,” said Simon Hudson, chairman and director of the University of South Carolina’s SmartState Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development.
Lion City love story
Perhaps no recent film embodies those promotional possibilities as comprehensively as “Crazy Rich Asians,” last summer’s surprise hit featuring a primarily Asian cast — a rarity for a Hollywood production — and set mostly in Singapore.
The Warner Bros. romantic comedy wastes little time showcasing the Lion City as an aspirational destination. At about the 12-minute mark, Nick (scion of Singapore high society) and Rachel (his Chinese American girlfriend) leave their luggage curbside at JFK and enter a sumptuous, dim sum-serving first-class cabin aboard the fictitious Pacific Asean Airlines.
Upon touchdown at Singapore’s Changi Airport (“I can’t believe this airport has a butterfly garden and a movie theater!” says Rachel, played by “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu), Nick’s friends immediately take the couple to one of the city’s hawker centers.
“Welcome to heaven on Earth!” one declares.
During a lovingly shot montage of vendors’ bustling stalls, from which Nick and friends order a variety of iconic regional dishes — laksa noodle soup, satay skewers, chili crab — Nick is heard via voice-over: “Each of these hawker stalls sells one dish, and they’ve been perfecting it for generations. This is one of the few places on Earth where street food vendors actually earn Michelin stars.”
Nick is played by Henry Golding, who made his feature film debut in “Crazy Rich Asians,” but this scene was right in his wheelhouse, having been a presenter on BBC’s “The Travel Show” since 2014.
Selecting one of the many tempting dishes at their table, Rachel takes a bite and rapturously exclaims, “Oh, my God!”
It’s a widescreen foodie fantasy that no Instagrammer’s smartphone-size feed could ever hope to match, and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) capitalized on the movie’s aspirational imagery in a number of ways leading up to its release.
For example, it held private screenings in key markets such as the U.S., Australia, Japan and Southeast Asia, and in the U.S. it organized a “Crazy Rich Singapore Week” pop-up event in Los Angeles, flying in Singaporeans such as Michelin-starred chef Malcolm Lee and award-winning mixologist Peter Chua to offer a taste of Singapore’s culinary and cocktail scenes.
The film resulted in a surge in interest that few tourism marketing campaigns could hope to replicate.
According to the STB, Google searches for “Singapore” in the U.S. increased by more than three times following the movie’s stateside release on Aug. 15, 2018; searches for “Singapore” on Orbitz increased by 110% in 2018 compared with 2017, with a 20% spike the week after the movie opened in the U.S.; and Singapore searches spiked 74% on Travelzoo during the film’s promotional campaign period from August to October 2018.
Kershing Goh, the STB’s regional director for the Americas, admitted that the board was not “able to quantify returns from the movie,” but, she said, “We have seen greater global awareness of our destination as a result. This has contributed to our record-breaking tourism performance in 2018, where Singapore welcomed over 643,000 visitors from the USA, a 14% increase from the year before.”
That momentum appears to have continued into 2019, with U.S. visitor arrivals up 9% through May, according to the STB.
And as the movie’s title might imply, much of this new interest in Singapore is from higher-end travelers, perhaps enticed by aerial shots of the Marina Bay Sands, interior shots of the Raffles (ready to host fans of the film with its reopening this year) and other luxury venues where, yes, you can have your own “Crazy Rich” experience.
Virtuoso, which included Singapore on its Virtuoso Hot 10 list, reported in May that Singapore experienced a 73% increase in summer bookings.
Luxury travel specialists have taken note, with small-group specialist Indus Travel creating a “Crazy Rich Asians”-themed tour package that offers visitors the chance to explore locations and experiences featured in the film.
One particularly audacious tie-in was Protravel International’s “Crazy Rich Americans Love Singapore” journey. The six-day itinerary, priced at about $30,000 per person, double, includes Singapore Airlines first-class suites, top hotels such as the Sands, Raffles and the Capitol Kempinski Singapore and a private guide providing “special access to well-known and hidden sites.”
Ninan Chacko, CEO of Protravel’s parent, Travel Leaders Group, said the itinerary was a continuation of ongoing efforts by Travel Leaders Group to build relationships with destination marketing organizations such as the STB. In Singapore’s case, it was an opportunity to highlight the Lion City as a leisure destination with a “once-in-a-life-time experience that capitalized” on the film’s popularity while showcasing “the personalized, white-glove service and experience” of Protravel, Chacko said.
“It’s one of these original multiethnic societies that has great experiences that range from outstanding food for around 10 bucks all the way to stunning, Raffles-style luxury experiences — highbrow and lowbrow experiences that make it uniquely Singapore,” Chacko said.
That aligns with the STB’s hopes that the movie resonates with audiences beyond its ultraluxe trappings.
“To us,” Goh said, “‘Crazy Rich’ should not just be about the opulence and luxury showcased in the film but [about] Singapore’s actual richness in terms of our diversity, as well as the depth and breadth of experiences for both locals and visitors.”
The itinerary was meant to catch the eye of millennials, and appropriately, Protravel collaborated with several social media influencers for its launch.
‘Our ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ journey exceeded our wildest expectations.’
“I don’t think Singapore’s expectations or ours were that we would actually sell any of these,” Chacko said. “It was intended to be so over the top. But we’ve already got three bookings that are well underway, with another 170 leads that are still being worked on from the campaign. It exceeded our wildest expectations and happily exceeded Singapore’s, also.”
The man with the Midas touch
Other destinations, meanwhile, have benefited from appearances not in surprise summer hits but in reliable popular franchises.
In recent years, Abu Dhabi has appeared in “Sex and the City 2” and “Furious 7” (wherein the supercar-loving heroes of the “Fast and the Furious” series of films check in to the ultraluxurious Emirates Palace). Dubai’s Burj Khalifa served as Tom Cruise’s personal jungle gym in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” and countless destinations, from Dubrovnik to Dublin and beyond, have benefited from their appearances in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
Perhaps no franchise has better demonstrated an ability to give a destination a tourism boost than Eon Productions’ James Bond films, which have showcased countless exotic locales ever since Sean Connery’s 007 judo-tossed an assailant into a stack of Red Stripe boxes in 1962’s “Dr. No.” Jamaica, in fact, holds a special place in Bond lore: Bond creator Ian Fleming penned the first 007 novel, “Casino Royale,” at his GoldenEye estate, today a luxury resort owned by Island Records impresario Chris Blackwell.
Blackwell was an acquaintance of Fleming’s and helped producers select filming locations for “Dr. No,” and for the then-24-year-old, “it was certainly very exciting.”
Today, GoldenEye continues to draw Bond fans.
“It’s almost like a holy grail for those who love James Bond, the character and the lifestyle,” he said. “The films have kept it alive. [Current Bond film producer] Barbara Broccoli has done an absolutely amazing job of keeping James Bond the character and movies as relevant as ever.”
The franchise’s return to Jamaica for Eon’s 25th Bond film, “No Time to Die,” set for release in April — and reportedly Daniel Craig’s last bow as Bond — has set the island’s tourism industry abuzz. Palace Resorts, for example, in a press release noted that a section of its Moon Palace Jamaica resort is “nestled upon the spot where Sean Connery landed his helicopter” in “Dr. No.”
Farther east, in Port Antonio, the Trident Hotel, part of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, plays an as-yet-undisclosed role in “No Time to Die.” According to general manager Dwight Powell, Eon filmed for about a month in Port Antonio, and members of the cast and crew stayed at the Trident. Powell said the hotel is discussing with Eon and the Jamaican government the possibility of rebuilding part of the set on the Trident property.
As several locations throughout the world have discovered, even a modest Bond pedigree can spark a tourism boon. Take, for example, Thailand’s Koh Tapu, an island in Phang Nga Bay, featured prominently in 1974’s “The Man With the Golden Gun.” When measured by box office gross (and adjusted for inflation) the film was among the two worst-performing installments of Eon’s 24 Bond films. Yet today, nearly every tour operator still calls Koh Tapu James Bond Island, and it sees scores of visitors each day.
Film and TV also continue to be an important tourism driver for Thailand. “Changeland,” an independent comedy-drama released in June, was filmed in Thailand locations including Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga. The country’s tourism authority is planning a trip for two tied to the film.
For VisitBritain, too, movies of all types are key to their film tourism strategy, from box office mainstays such as the Bond franchise to quirkier works such as this summer’s Beatles-themed romantic comedy “Yesterday,” which showcased locations in England’s Norfolk county to the east and the Fab Four’s hometown of Liverpool to the west.
For more than a decade, VisitBritain has striven to promote the destination through movies and TV, officials said.
“The team in the U.S. are in charge of our film and TV efforts, so they work a lot on the West Coast,” said VisitBritain CEO Sally Balcombe. “They work with the studios to think about what’s coming up … so we get early sight of what’s coming up. And we try and build new stories and promotions around it.”
Bond played an integral role in an extensive VisitBritain marketing campaign in 2012, the 50th anniversary of the Bond movies. The 21-country campaign, using the slogan “Bond Is Great Britain,” featured the DMO’s first film tourism ad, which played in cinemas in key inbound markets.
According to VisitBritain, more recent success stories include “Downton Abbey,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Crown,” as well as the enduring appeal of the Harry Potter franchise, which remains “a huge draw for visitors to Great Britain,” officials said.
“Often the ripple effect from a movie or TV show can go on for years,” Balcombe said. “What you have to do is keep it relevant and keep it going. So a lot of work [in the] early stage and a lot of work afterward.”
VisitBritain officials said about one-fifth of travelers say they have visited a movie or TV location while on vacation, and of that group, 29% said it was the main reason for visiting a particular destination.
Those numbers are fairly consistent with other findings about film and TV as tourism draws.
In its May report, Destination Decision: How Travelers Choose Where to Go, Phocuswright found that seeing a destination in a movie or TV program or reading about it in a book or magazine, while not a primary decision driver, was a significant factor for many source markets: 23% of U.S. respondents cited it as a factor in their decision-making. (It was most frequently cited as a factor by Australians, at 33%, and Chinese travelers, at 36%.)
In MMGY’s latest Portrait of American Travelers report, meanwhile, 25% of respondents said they’d chosen a vacation destination based at least partially on seeing it in a movie or on TV, and 20% said they’d chosen a hotel, tour or other travel service provider based at least partially on seeing it in a movie or on TV.
That effect is by no means limited to recent releases. The University of South Carolina’s Hudson noted that the village of Cong in Ireland still draws tourists thanks to its appearance in the 1952 John Wayne film “The Quiet Man.” Indeed, a film’s portrayal of a destination can resonate with audiences in unforeseen ways decades after its release.
Take “Crocodile Dundee,” the second highest-grossing movie in the U.S. in 1986. Back then, Tourism Australia tapped into that movie’s popularity and enlisted star Paul Hogan as the spokesman for its U.S. marketing campaign. And while Tourism Australia has launched a number of marketing campaigns in the U.S. since then, arguably none has resonated the way a 2018 Super Bowl ad did, by tapping Dundee nostalgia for a slick, star-studded trailer (including a Hogan cameo) for a fictitious “Crocodile Dundee” sequel featuring current Tourism Australia ambassador Chris Hemsworth.
A destination’s appearance in TV or film is, in essence, product placement, Hudson said. But it’s the sort of product whose potential can endure long after a wily hacker’s lightning-fast laptop — logo illuminated just so in a darkened control room — has been relegated to the recycling bin or a suave superspy’s English sports car has ejected its last unwanted passenger.
‘Film tourism fits really nicely into that trend of experience caching.’
“We as tourists 10, 20, 30 years ago, when we went on holiday it was sun, sea, sand, relaxation,” Hudson said. But in 2019, “we’ve done all that as tourists. And so now we’re looking for experiences. We’re looking for experience caching: What’s cool, what can we take back, what can we share on social media? And I think film tourism fits really nicely into that trend.”