Destinations awaken to opportunities to market ‘Star Wars’ filming locations

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X-wing fighters in the film "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
X-wing fighters in the film "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Photo Credit: Disney

Throngs of fans who made pilgrimages to cinemas over the weekend to take in the highly anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” finally got to see the first addition to the sci-fi franchise in a decade.

And while “Star Wars” was Nirvana for the film industry, breaking myriad box-office records, it also promised to be a holiday gift to the travel industry, having been shot on locations that are likely to see a boost in visitor numbers thanks to the exposure.

“ ‘Star Wars’ boasts some of the most dedicated fans on the planet, and now moviegoers can visit many of the places that capture their mind on the big screen,” said John Geysen, manager of communications at Collette, which is hoping that the filming locations featured in the movie will spur demand for the company’s tours to the host destinations.

“The original trilogy of films,” he said, “were shot in exciting locations such as Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, California’s Death Valley, Norway and even Guatemala. The less-loved prequels relied heavily on [computer-generated imagery] … giving them a less tangible quality. Today, as director J.J. Abrams returns to pick up the story of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, he has returned to some spectacular real-world filming locations.”

Like much surrounding the new movie, those real-world filming locations have been shrouded in relative secrecy. But, like much surrounding the new “Star Wars” movie, there have been numerous rumors and leaks, including about where the film was shot.

According to several news outlets and the Internet movie database site IMDB.com, the film’s locations include the Skellig Rocks and other locations in Ireland; Scotland; Myvatn and the Krafla volcano in Iceland; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Greenham Common in Berkshire, England; and New Mexico in addition to studio locations and possibly several additional locales.

The destination marketing organizations that represent those locations have not yet received confirmation from Disney that they were used for the filming, and they are awaiting the go-ahead from Disney before they can actively market them.

“I’d love to be able to say that we’re going to market Scotland on the back of “Star Wars,” but unfortunately we are not privy to any of the details of where it was shot in Scotland,” said Tom Maxwell, corporate press officer for VisitScotland.

Ingvar Ingvarsson, who oversees public relations for Promote Iceland, said he, too, was unable to comment on anything related to the new “Star Wars” movie as of yet.

But he noted that according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Icelandic Tourist Board, 14.3% of visitors travel there because they have seen Iceland in movies, television series or music videos.

“We are, of course, excited to see if this result will change for this year due to ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’” Ingvarsson said. “We would expect to see an increase in film tourism because of ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Finn, portrayed by John Boyega, in a scene from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
Finn, portrayed by John Boyega, in a scene from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Photo Credit: Disney

Indeed, if history is any predictor, the destinations featured in “The Force Awakens” are likely to see interest soar. 

Norway, for example, continues to see increased demand, thanks, in part, to Disney’s hit animated film “Frozen,” which was set in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, based on sights and scenery in Norway.

Norway saw a 31% increase in travelers from the U.S. in 2014 compared with 2013, the year “Frozen” was released. And from January 2014 through October 2015, the country experienced a 40% increase in visitors from the U.S., according to Harald Hansen, spokesman for Visit Norway.

Other countries have seen a similar boost from the movie industry. For the past 15 years, Tourism New Zealand has successfully marketed New Zealand as the home of Middle-earth, the fictional land from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, much of which was filmed in New Zealand.

According to the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, that campaign has resulted in increased interest and travel to New Zealand, predominantly from western markets such as the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

VisitBritain, which has seen demand to the U.K. climb in lockstep with certain hit films, such as the Harry Potter and James Bond franchises, said that 40% of potential travelers to Britain were very likely to visit places from films or TV. Glencoe Mountain in the Scottish Highlands, for example, saw an increase in visitation of more than 40% thanks, in part, to scenes from the Bond movie “Skyfall.”

To further leverage the popularity of the James Bond character and films, VisitBritain has launched a global Bond is Great campaign in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios to coincide with last month’s release of “Spectre,” the most recent addition to the franchise.

Clearly, while opportunity knocks when a popular movie showcases a potential travel destination, few films ever experience the level of hype surrounding the new “Star Wars” movie.

Disney itself will be capitalizing on the excitement, not just at the box office but with new “Star Wars” entertainment at Walt Disney World that opened two weeks ahead of the movie at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park.

In advance of entire “Star Wars”-themed lands that are in the works at both Disney World and Disneyland in California, Disney World unveiled a courtyard filled with all-things “Star Wars,” a video game center, a movie theater showing abridged versions of the “Star Wars” movies and a motion simulator showing “Star Wars” locales and characters.

Meanwhile, other travel marketers aren’t waiting to try to get in on some of the “Star Wars” action.

HomeToGo, the vacation rental website, has been promoting rentals in destinations that have been featured in previous “Star Wars” films, such as California’s Death Valley, Norway and Italy. The Japanese airline ANA has decorated some of its planes with “Star Wars” characters as part of an agreement with Disney. And last week, Frontier Airlines came out with a “low fares awaken” promotion, the ads for which feature animals decked out in “Star Wars” costumes.

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