There’s a reason why Game of Thrones’ opening credits appear over a map of the series’ mystical lands.
In this show, the settings are more than mere backdrops to epic battles and soaring dragons. The locations – from Westeros to Winterfell, the Wall, Braavos and Dorne – are essentially co-stars, capturing the hearts and fascination of fans. The frozen tundras, ancient castles, medieval walled towns and dramatic glaciers that populate the world are, for many, as recognizable as Arya Stark or Tyrion Lannister. And unlike the fictional characters, dedicated viewers can visit their favourite Thrones lands in real life.
Game of Thrones-inspired tourism continues to be one of the biggest travel trends – a pursuit so powerful that it’s overhauled the tourist economies of several countries. The “Game of Thrones effect” is cited as the main factor in Iceland’s jump from approximately 566,000 visitors in 2011 to over 1 million visitors in 2015. Just a few years ago, most people gave the Nordic island nation nary a thought. It’s now hard to find someone who hasn’t recently been to Iceland or at least cites the country among their travel wish-list. Dozens of enterprising guides now offer Game of Thrones-specific tours where one can trail the stomping ground of White Walkers, visit North of the Wall and scope out Viking villages where some of the series’ most infamous massacres took place.
Iceland isn’t the only country to reap the benefits of Thrones-induced tourist hysteria. According to TripAdvisor, the show’s filming locations see an average 120 per cent increase in tourist interest. Croatia, which serves as the setting for King’s Landing among other locales, has seen its struggling economy boosted by a 10 per cent year-over-year increase in tourism since the show began filming there. Kils, Croatia, where Daenerys has been ruling over Meereen for several seasons saw a staggering 579 per cent surge in search traffic on TripAdvisor.
Game of Thrones-inspired tourism means big, big money for the locations it shares its magic with. Northern Ireland, which appears as Winterfell, cites a direct economic benefit of £82m from the series. The Ireland tourism board estimates Northern Ireland has received over £8.6 million worth of publicity from its appearances in the show, and capitalized on that with a tourism campaign they call their “most successful in history.”
Game of Thrones may be the most notable driver of what’s been dubbed the “film travel trend” by industry professionals, but it’s certainly not the only player on the board. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit brought unprecedented numbers of visitors to New Zealand, resulting in a tourism increase of over 50 per cent since the first film. Ireland, in addition to their Thrones fame, hit a record number of tourists last year after Star Wars: The Force Awakens filmed in the western part of the nation.
In 2014, the research firm Tourism Competitive Intelligence found over 45 million international tourists chose a destination primarily because they saw a movie or TV show filmed in that country. But if you think your favourite shows are simply choosing the best location to tell their stories, you’d be revealing your naivety. The potential economic rewards of a huge film tourism boost has inspired creative countries to pay for placement on screen.
The tactic has proven extremely effective. While most viewers are savvy to soda and automobile brands paying for play in films, many never consider that expansive tundras, historic ruins and majestic mountains are getting the same treatment. Fleeting are the days of billboards, traditional TV ads and paid trips for travel editors. Enter the age of tourism as product placement.
The city of Nashville basically entirely funded the TV show Nashville’s fifth season so that it wouldn’t be cancelled after season four. They saw massive tourism increases continue as a result, with an estimated one in five visitors coming to the Music City because of the show. Game of Thrones has received funds from the European Regional Development Fund and Invest Northern Ireland. The series received £9.25 million in grants for the first three seasons from Northern Ireland. In 2015, Spain, which has also seen Thrones increasingly use the country for shoots, introduced significant new federal tax credits for international shoots.
Film tourism as destination marketing is particularly effective because people become more emotionally connected to a location in a movie or TV show than they would through a conventional ad. The most successful stories for film tourism tell universal stories with characters and archetypes many people can relate to. There are even consulting firms, such as FilmQuest, that offer to help tourism boards with tourism-focused script analysis, creation of location portfolios and on-site “product development” workshops to help tour guides and local businesses fully capitalize from their newfound fame. Some of FilmQuest’s clients include Denmark in connection with the movie Trolls, Britain in connection with Paddington and, yes, Northern Ireland in connection with Game of Thrones.
It can be a delicate act; some tourism boards worry dark plotlines may tarnish the image of their destination. For example, it took Albuquerque seasons to warm up to the drug and violence-fuelled Breaking Bad, which resulted in all-time high tourism records for the city. It’s now no surprise spin-off Better Call Saul decided to continue filming there; New Mexico is known for having some of the best film incentives around and now refers to the production team as “partners.”
It’s now increasingly common for countries to hire firms to publicize their use as film locations. Canada hired mega public relations firm Weber Shandwick to advertise and brand our nation through TV and film. Chicago has its own product placement specialist on staff to increase the city’s appearances on screen. Once a country or city has a hit on their hands, it’s in their best interest to keep the momentum going with sequels, special DVD releases and, in the case of TV shows, big-screen adaptations.
With Canada being home to so many productions, it’s worth asking why we haven’t seen our own version of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings spike interest in our diverse landscapes and cities. Toronto is the third-largest screen-based production centre in North America and Vancouver’s tax incentives combined with a close proximity to Los Angeles makes it another film hotspot. We’re certainly spending the money –
British Columbia spent approximately $500 million in production tax credits during 2015-2016.
Perhaps it speaks to Canadians’ stubborn modesty and preference for remaining behind the scenes rather than in the spotlight. Maybe we’re just not that great at promoting ourselves. Whatever the reason, it seems like a sorely missed opportunity to cast Canada as the next big star.