There is a certain fascination we all have with visiting the places that served as the backdrop to some of our favourite moments on screen. A few years back, when I was on holiday in Malta, I painstakingly researched every location that was featured on the first season of Game of Thrones so I could see them. I wanted to see places like the walled city of Mdina, aka King’s Landing before Dubrovnik took its place, or the Azure Window on the island of Gozo , the breathtaking spot of Dany and Drogo’s wedding ceremony that has sadly since collapsed. When I went to the Greek Island of Skiathos, I am unashamed to say that I went on a Mamma Mia cruise to the neighbouring Island of Skopelos to visit all the beaches and spots featured in the film. I am not the first nor will I be the last to engage in this type of screen tourism.Proof I was there at Azure Window in Gozo, Malta (credit: Mariam Okasha)
There is an endless amount of films and television series being speedily churned out for us to consume, and with the increase and accessibility of travel, it’s only natural that people will want to flock to all the places that they’ve seen on their screens. In a 2017 report from the Tourism Competitive Intelligence (TCI), 80 million international tourists said they chose a travel destination primarily on the basis of seeing it in a movie or television show. This figure has since doubled. Andrea Mervar, a Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Economics in Zagreb (IEZ), said that “due to a number of direct and indirect effects, it is very difficult to estimate the precise impact of film tourism on the economy. Nevertheless, there has been evidence that its impact on the increase of tourist arrivals (and overnight stays and revenues), especially in the case of filming worldwide famous films, has been significant.” This can even go beyond the actual locations. An example of this is the effect Peaky Blinders has had on the city of Birmingham. If you’re a fan of the hit series about the infamous gangsters, you’ll know that the bulk of the story takes place in Birmingham. But did you know that the series is actually filmed in parts of Manchester and Liverpool? Despite that, Birmingham attracts a lot of screen tourism as a result of the show. There's even going to be a Peaky Blinders festival starting soon. Get your flat caps ready.Filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in The Empty Quarter in Abu Dhabi (via Wired)
In the Middle East, countries like Jordan, the UAE, Tunisia, and Morocco are major attractions for big-budget Hollywood movies. Aladdin, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and The Martian were all partially shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan. The UAE, which is becoming a film production hub in its own right, has been the backdrop for films like Star Trek Beyond, shot in the heart of Dubai, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was filmed in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. Morocco was the go-to location for any cities situated across the Narrow Sea in the world of Game of Thrones; the city of Essaouria doubled as Astapor in Essos and Aït Ben Haddou as Yunkai. In Tunisia, the city of Matmata served as the planet of Tatooine, the home of little Ani Skywalker before he turned to the dark side. Clearly, the Middle Eastern desert is making people feel like they’re on another planet. The fictional Tatooine. (via Amusing Planet)
So why doesn’t Egypt get a slice of that pie? Simply put, other countries are doing it better. Egypt used to be the media hub of the Arab world, but that hasn’t been the case since the 90s. Times have been a-changing and Egypt got left behind. Even when a movie is set in Egypt, producers prefer to film in other Arab countries like Morocco or Jordan due to the facilities and streamlined procedures that Egypt lacks. With today’s ever-advancing CGI technologies, you can make any place look like Egypt if you need to. Countries like Jordan and Morocco have been savvy enough to see the gap in the film market and capitalize on it. The first half of 2019 saw 98 projects shot and produced in Morocco, which translated to a total investment of $73 million. The same is happening in Jordan. Disney worked very closely with Jordan’s Royal Film Commission (RFC) for the filming of Aladdin. For the production of the film, 150 local staff were hired and it is estimated that 95,000 job opportunities were created in the film sector in the last decade thanks to the RFC and their commitment to putting Jordan on the map for Hollywood filmmakers. And that little town in Tunisia, Matmata, most of its inhabitants work as craftsmen, stunt doubles, and extras in Hollywood productions, so that’s another location just ready to go. Not only does all of this translate into revenue streams, but it's also a chance for the Middle East to boost its tourism and showcase locations and places that you might not have heard of or known about before. Because one thing is for sure: pop culture is king. So, of course screen tourism is on the rise and, a lot of the time, this has a very positive impact. Spot the Jordanian desert. (via Arab Weekly)
However, screen tourism can sometimes go a little bit off track — like when the Bronx steps featured in the iconic dance scene from the Joker became an actual tourist hot spot with people clamouring to get their picture taken while posing as the psychopathic killer and causing a general nuisance for residents. Yay, society. And sometimes it can go very awry. Ten years ago, after the release of the first Mamma Mia, Skopelos saw an influx of tourists like never before. Skopelos was a quiet and tranquil island with a population of only 4,696, often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Skiathos – that is, until Mamma Mia was released. Hordes of people wanted to have the Mamma Mia experience. Prices ended up skyrocketing to the extent that its own residents couldn't afford to stay there anymore. Game of Thrones tour in Dubrovnik, Croatia, B.M.Q. (Before Mad Queen) (via Viator)
Another example of this has been Dubrovnik, the beautiful coastal town in Croatia that has served as the home of Westeros' capital, King’s Landing, for the last seven seasons of Game of Thrones. UNESCO awarded the Old City its World Heritage status in 1979, but in 2016, the World Heritage Committee identified the overcrowding and lack of proper visitor management as a problem that the city needed to address. It was advised that the Old City not exceed the limit of 8,000 visitors a day but with the rising popularity, especially after the release of the final season, that has been a limit that they haven't been able to stick to.
Bruges was yet another victim of overcrowding caused by screen tourism. The little town in Belgium that was the title star of the film In Bruges has experienced such an extreme overflow of people that the government has decided to stop advertising for day trips in the city. “We have to control the influx more if we don’t want Bruges to become a complete Disneyland here,” said Dirk De fauw, mayor of Bruges.
New Zealand seems to have found a sort of fix for that by implementing a tourism tax for tourist upon entering the country. Visitors are to pay 35 NZD to ensure they “contribute to the infrastructure they use and help protect the natural environment they enjoy”, according to the government. This is something they have been dealing with for over 15 years since the launch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealand has worked tirelessly to make itself synonymous with Middle Earth. If you want to geek out and feel like you're right in the thick of the action in the Shire, all you have to do is take a trip to New Zealand. According to Tourism New Zealand, six percent of visitors, which is around 120,000 – 150,000 people, cite The Lord of the Rings as one of the main reasons for their trip to “The Land of the Long White Cloud,” as it’s known in Māori.Middle Earth in New Zealand (via Backpacker Guide)
But then again New Zealand is ahead of the game in many aspects; Tourism New Zealand, the New Zealand Film Commission, and Film New Zealand work hand-in-hand whenever a film or show is produced in the country and capitalize on those opportunities by converting that international attention into travel. By doing so, they combined the forces of two seemingly unrelated sectors and gave birth to a very symbiotic relationship that can create many revenue streams for the country. We’ve seen how Jordan and Morocco are on that very same track right now, but it would be a majorly lost opportunity if Egypt doesn’t follow in their footsteps.
Egypt has been killing the game in the tourism sector lately; beyond being listed as a top tourism destinations by several global entities, Egypt also grossed its highest ever tourism revenue in 2019 – $12.6 billion – and saw over 12 million global tourists, nearing the previous peak of 13.6 million in 2010, which was pre-Arab Spring. We’re finally getting back on track with a flourishing tourism industry that is unafraid to try new and modern ways to market the country to foreigners. We should be following in the footsteps of Jordan and New Zealand, and have both entertainment and tourism sectors working together and bring this home. instead, what’s happening is that even films set in Pharaonic times are being filmed elsewhere because of the logistical nightmare that is filming in Egypt. Not saying it should be easy – after all, we've seen how ugly it can turn when it gets out of hand, and our sites need protecting – but it should definitely be easier. With a bit of cooperation between the entertainment and tourism industries, we can be talking about different kinds of revenues for Egypt. And if not…well…I guess they can always add those pyramids in post.