Set-jetting puts spotlight on destinations
Travelers are hungrier than ever for the settings and locations they fell in love with during their pandemic-era binge on streaming TV and movies.
Illustration by Jenn Martins
Illustration by Jenn Martins
NEW YORK — You don’t have to watch Amazon Prime’s hit series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to appreciate a sightseeing tour of the show’s locations, especially when guided by one of its regular background actors, who’s dressed in character.
“I get to go gallivanting around in pretty clothes from a different time, and you get transported back in time,” said tour guide Katherine Winter, whose latest role on the show is a TWA flight attendant, as she led an On Location Tours experience through the Big Apple in April.
The group included visitors from Kentucky; Tennessee; Georgia; and a woman from Connecticut who quoted one-liners from Susie Myerson, one of the main characters on the show, as if reciting poetry. The tour stopped in front of Greenwich Village’s La Bonbonniere, the City Spoon in the series; the Music Inn, which plays itself; and bars including Old Town Bar and McSorley’s Old Ale House, all of which brought us back to the late 1950s New York the show is set in. The best moment came when Winter re-created a scene in front of Midge’s butcher shop, which is called Lutzi’s on the show but is actually Albanese Meats and Poultry in Little Italy. If everyone on the tour thought that scene made for great television, the live performance was just as impressive.
These Maisel fans were among a new wave of “set-jetters” who emerged from the pandemic wanting to visit the sites that appear in their favorite shows and movies. While set-jetting, TV tourism or location vacations are not new, they got a major reboot after so many people spent the better part of two years hunkered down waiting for the pandemic to end while bingeing on an endless stream of television and films.
“People were glued to their TVs during the pandemic and often watched shows over and over again,” said Simon Hudson, a tourism professor at the University of South Carolina.
It was a time that helped fuel set-jetting’s popularity today, Hudson said, as people were mentally and visually transported around the world when they couldn’t step foot outside their homes. “A film or TV show can present millions of viewers with substantial information about a destination, create a first-time image or alter an existing image in a relatively short period of time,” he said.
Travel advisors say they’re fielding requests left and right from clients looking to book trips to the destinations with leading roles in today’s most popular TV shows and films.
“A good 30% of my clients are coming to me saying, ‘I’ve been watching ‘White Lotus.’ Where is that filmed? How do I get to this hotel? What do I do to stay here? I’m dying to go,’” said Lily Szemplinski, owner of Passport Stamps in Westport, Conn., adding that shows like “The White Lotus,” “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” and “Emily in Paris” have sparked a new wave of interest in entertainment-driven tourism.
“Ever since Covid, TV shows act as inspiration for things to do,” Szemplinski said. “With these amazing shows came people wanting to travel.”
‘Ever since Covid, TV shows act as inspiration for things to do. With these amazing shows came people wanting to travel.’
It’s a worldwide trend. According to Expedia’s 2023 travel trends report, two-thirds of global travelers have considered booking travel to destinations after seeing them on streamed shows or movies, and 39% have actually booked those trips.
A blockbuster film or hit television show can mean blockbuster gains not only for the site or destination featured on the screen but also for the greater region.
“A benefit of the set-jetting phenomenon is that it attracts a wide demographic of tourists [who are] drawn to a range of locations, including heritage buildings, small villages or the countryside,” Hudson said.
‘A benefit of set-jetting is that it attracts a wide demographic of tourists who are drawn
to a range of locations.’
And those benefits can be long-lasting. After several films set in New Zealand came out in the early 2000s, everyone wanted to visit the country, a fascination that hasn’t abated.
“‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ were significant successes, and we still see, even from research a few years ago, that one in five people become interested in traveling to New Zealand after seeing those movie series,” said Rene de Monchy, chief executive of Tourism New Zealand.
And about 69% of people considering a visit to New Zealand are still interested in visiting a film set or a film location, de Monchy said, adding that more recent films like “Avatar: the Way of Water,” also shot in New Zealand, have sparked additional interest in set-jet tourism to the South Pacific country.
Destinations at the center of recent set-jetting hype aren’t quite as far flung, which makes it a bit easier for travelers stepping out for the first time since the pandemic. For Americans, the strong dollar also makes set-jet tourism out of the U.S. much more accessible.
Perhaps the most widely requested set-jet locations now are the locales in Hawaii and Italy where the two seasons of the Emmy-winning HBO dramedy “The White Lotus” were filmed. Few hotels have seen their stars rise faster in the past two years than the two Four Seasons properties, the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea and Sicily’s San Domenico Palace, Taormina, which served as the primary settings for a series that has achieved what Mark Simon, director of marketing at the Four Seasons Resort Maui, described as “cult-like popularity.”
Following the 2021 release of the first season of “The White Lotus” — which, due to the pandemic, was filmed almost entirely at the Maui resort — the property saw a 425% year-over-year increase in website visits and a 386% increase in availability checks.
“‘The White Lotus’ certainly has [piqued] viewers’ interest, which we see reflected in website visits, availability checks and search traffic,” said Simon. “This is especially true for our oceanfront suites, which, in essence, had their own starring roles throughout the series.”
Likewise, the San Domenico Palace has reaped benefits since its appearance in the show’s second season, which debuted last fall.
“‘The White Lotus’ effect, as we like to call it, has been very strong,” said Lorenzo Maraviglia, general manager of the San Domenico Palace. “In fact, we expect to feel it throughout the spring and summer and beyond, [just as we’ve] seen with our sister hotel in Maui.”
But with a good portion of the second season set in other locations throughout Sicily, Maraviglia is seeing “The White Lotus” effect spread well beyond the hotel grounds.
“Taormina is absolutely buzzing with people, and we know Sicily overall has seen a surge in tourism,” he said.
The City of Light might not be in need of more tourists, but it’s getting them anyway, courtesy of the Netflix series “Emily in Paris.”
Advisors say the show is fueling demand for hotel stays, shopping trips and Instagrammable experiences that let guests walk a fashionable mile in lead character Emily Cooper’s shoes.
Chloe Johnston, president and founder of Pennsylvania-based Chloe Johnston Experiences, helped a mother and daughter plan a recent Parisian getaway on which the daughter was adamant that a stay at the Dorchester Collection’s Hotel Plaza Athenee, featured in the show’s first season, be included.
“Her mindset was, I want that exact hotel, with a huge suite, where you open the doors to this balcony and you have these beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower,” Johnston said. “And of course, that shifts the whole trip, because they had one budget for hotels originally, but once that request came into the mix, that budget had to completely change.”
According to the University of South Carolina’s Hudson, when set-jet tourists get to the filming locations, they like to see the places where the show happens and envision themselves as part of its story.
“They like to use their imagination to create a mental reconstruction of the filming process,” Hudson said. “Others use the TV show or film as a frame to understand the ‘real’ history of the places they have visited.”
Real history certainly comes alive when visiting locations featured in period pieces, such as the U.K.-based Netflix show “Bridgerton.”
Jeni Mundy, Visa’s global head of merchant sales and acquiring, said the company noticed a surge last year in visitors going to Bath, England, where, along with London, much of the smash hit was filmed.
“We tried to understand why Bath would be doing a lot better from visitors from Japan and Qatar, for example, than London,” she said. “It has to be the Netflix factor and the success of ‘Bridgerton.’”
Tour operators have also taken note and are capitalizing on the demand for locations from the show’s Regency-era setting. Red Savannah recently launched a seven-day itinerary, Bonnets and Bodices: In Search of Bridgerton’s England, which visits London, Bath and the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Guests will visit sites from some of the show’s most memorable moments, such as Wilton House in Wiltshire, and promenade along the manicured lawns of Painshill Park, just like Daphne and the Duke of Hastings.
Cruise lines don’t usually get to reap the advantage of an on-location vacation, but in 2020, the HBO Max movie “Let Them All Talk,” starring Meryl Streep, took place almost entirely on the Queen Mary 2, which itself earned rave reviews for Cunard Line.
Cruise ships do manage to get in on the set-jet action by taking guests to film locations while in port and offering sailings themed around their favorite shows.
“Game of Thrones” fans sailing to Dubrovnik, Croatia, with Princess Cruises can take a themed tour of the walled city that served as King’s Landing, the capital of the fictional Seven Kingdoms. Celebrity Cruises offers full-day excursions in New Zealand inspired by “Lord of the Rings” and Sicily excursions that visit villages where parts of the “The Godfather” saga was filmed.
Meanwhile, on the rivers, Avalon Waterways has added an “Outlander”-themed itinerary on the Rhine this year, with Graham McTavish, one of the stars of the show, hosting the sailing.
And Viking offers a three-night, post-cruise land tour of Highclere Castle, the setting of “Downton Abbey,” for guests sailing on its eight-day Paris & Normandy itinerary.
Challenges and responsible set-jetting
The additional tourism that set-jetting brings is not always warmly received.
The natural and cultural environment of places, which location scouts often choose because they are off the beaten path, can experience pressure from both the film industry and then the increase in visitors, Hudson said.
In Dubrovnik, he said, there were 300 tours related to the “Game of Thrones” series in 2015. In 2017, there were 4,500.
“Pressure can be placed on infrastructure by a sudden increase in visitors, and this was the case in Dubrovnik,” he said. “The Old City, the most picturesque part, was overcrowded and in danger of losing its distinction as a Unesco World Heritage Site.”
Perhaps the most infamous example of this effect was Maya Beach, Thailand, the setting of the 2000 film “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which was closed to tourists in 2018 for more than three years after authorities deemed that the coral reefs and beach areas had been damaged by constant visits since the film’s debut.
Of the most recent set-jetting travel surge, several articles point to the disruption “Emily in Paris” fans are creating for the residents of a once-quiet square in the city’s Latin Quarter. Similarly, locals of an otherwise untouristed area of the Bronx have reported being inundated by visitors re-enacting the Joker’s dance down a staircase from the 2019 film.
Not all locations are as burdened, and companies like On Location Tours have found many businesses who enjoy being in the spotlight. “Local businesses who have been featured in these series and films experience a surge in business as fans are eager to follow in the footsteps of their favorite characters and ‘try out’ the establishment,” said Georgette Blau, CEO and founder of On Location Tours.
That includes “Sex and the City,” which continues to be the focus of one of its most popular tours. The real-life owners of Carrie’s apartment in the West Village welcome those guests to take photos in front of their brownstone, so long as they stay off the stoop. And certain bars visited on the “Mrs. Maisel” tour allow On Location’s groups to enter as long as they’re small enough.
“We are on great terms with the owners of Carrie’s apartment now due to ongoing communication and a mutual respect that we’ve been able to foster,” Blau said. “There are some places that, of course, do not want the entire group all at once entering the establishment due to size and capacity restraints, in which case we work with them on splitting the group up.”
‘Most people are excited to take photos right where their favorite scenes happened.’
Hudson said that with this kind of good management practice and educating stakeholders about set-jetting, communities can actively participate and be involved in the process, keeping negative impacts on the location to a minimum.
Jamie Biesiada and Johanna Jainchill contributed to this report.