The Thrill (and Occasional Disappointment) of Movie-Location Tourism
Everyone wants to see where their favorite movie or television show was filmed. But things may not be as they appear.
The House of Dragons, HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel, is a big hit, which means locations where the series is being filmed are already preparing for an influx of visitors — especially Cornwall and Derbyshire in the U.K., and parts of Spain and Portugal.
Movie-and-TV-tourism is now big business — in part, because of Game of Thrones. The series was, of course, wildly successful, and frequently filmed on-location in an epic, cinematic style.
As a result, the locations often looked so spectacular that many people wanted to see them for themselves. Dubrovnik, Croatia, where they filmed many exteriors for King’s Landing, supposedly doubled its number of visitors since the show debuted.
Game of Thrones wasn’t the sole cause of all this new tourism to Dubrovnik and elsewhere, of course. It’s more accurate to say that the movie-and-TV tourism coincided with two other exploding trends:
The rise of tourism in general, especially international travel. In 1950, only 25 million people took an international trip. In 2018, right before Covid, an incredible 1.4 billion people did.
The rise of entertainment fandoms, which has changed the way many people relate to and interact with TV and movies. In short, people may now have an even stronger emotional connection to the media they enjoy.
Indeed, when initial filming for The Lord of the Rings movies was completed in December 2002, many of the temporary sets were struck — in part because no one knew what a phenomenon the films would become, but also because movie tourism and fandoms in general were not yet the things they would become.
But when The Hobbit prequel movies were filmed in 2009, the Hobbiton set was built to be permanent, and the sets have since become the basis for an elaborate — and expensive — tourist experience.
These days, almost everywhere Michael and I go, locals are quick to boast of any movie or TV connection.
In fact, sometimes different places lay claim to the exact same movie-location.
The classic 1980 horror movie The Shining is set in a fictional place called the Overlook Hotel. The movie’s interiors were all done on soundstages in England, but exteriors were shot at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon, and they definitely celebrated that connection when we visited.
But Stephen King, who wrote the book the movie is based on, claimed his story was inspired by the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, and when we visited there, it too claimed to be “the Overlook Hotel” from The Shining.
(In fairness, the movie is set in Colorado, and when Stephen King himself wrote and produced a 1997 TV adaptation of his novel, he filmed it at the Stanley Hotel.)
To make things even more confusing, the interior set for The Shining over in England was modeled after the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite Park, California. But that’s probably one factoid too many, isn’t it?
Likewise, the town of Forks, Washington, is the setting for the Twilight books and movies. But author Stephenie Meyer, who wrote the books, had never actually visited the town before the first book was published — she just learned that Forks exists in a temperate rainforest, with not a lot of sunshine, and she figured it would be a place in the United States where dreamy, sparkly vampires might gravitate. Not a single scene of any of the movies was shot in Forks.
But that doesn’t stop the town from putting on an annual Twilight festival.
Of course, people have long enjoyed visiting the locations where movies are shot — and prior to Game of Thrones, it was mostly movies, because television used to be shot almost entirely in soundstages and on cheaper backlots. Television didn’t used to have Game of Thrones amazing cinematography either.
The movies definitely put Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on the map. It was a sleepy fishing village when the cast and crew descended in 1963 to make the film Night of the Iguana. Interestingly, it wasn’t so much the movie that popularized the town, but all the gossip surrounding star Richard Burton and his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth Taylor, who had accompanied him on-location. Later, director John Huston bought a well-publicized villa there.
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