Along with the likes of Frodo, Gandalf and Gollum, the brilliant (and sometimes enhanced) New Zealand scenery showcased in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy practically became its own character.
So did the travel industry.
Ever since the heightened awareness of tourism in New Zealand fueled by the “Lord of the Rings” movies, destination marketers around the world have been looking for ways to harness the power of “film tourism,” a concept that connects tourist interest in sites made famous by movies.
Increasingly, government-sponsored tourism campaigns are being launched around big-budget films.
Enamored with Ang Lee’s fantastical take on India in 2012’s “Life of Pi,” India’s Ministry of Tourism has built an entire “Land of Pi” tourism campaign.
“We will be promoting the locations where the movie was shot,” an Indian tourism official told CNN Travel. “We expect it to roll out around mid-March.”
The Leading Hotels of the World consortium has recently gotten in on the act, as well, posting a website listing iconic hotels that have played famous roles in movies throughout the years.
Many of the company's hotels have experienced increased business following the release of a film in which the property was featured.
"The Hotel Le Bristol Paris offers a 'Midnight in Paris' package," Leading Hotels of the World chief marketing officer Claudia Kozma tells CNN Travel. "Since the film's release, the hotel has had many requests for the Panoramic Suite [featured in the movie], and tourists can often be spotted snapping photos of the facade and lobby."
The Dodler Resort, Switzerland, has seen a similar boost since its own star turn in a recent blockbuster.
"Though we don't have specific numbers, we definitely had an increase in interest in our property after 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,'" says general manager Matthias Kasweber.
Underwriting movies for tourism gains
Traditionally, tourism promoters have capitalized on the popularity of a film only after its success at the box office.
But industry experts say that tourist boards and even national policymakers are becoming more aggressive in working with films from their conception, citing New Zealand’s largesse with the “Lord of the Rings” as the most potent example.
New Zealand’s federal government famously provided a US$150 million incentive package for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy production. While hard monetary returns are virtually impossible to calculate, the general consensus is that the investment paid off with a massive international marketing success for the country.
Such hand-in-glove cooperation between tourist boards and movie producers, however, remains in its infancy.
“In terms of policymaking, there is a lack of integration between most tourist commissions and film commissions -- they need to work more closely and consider ways that they can support each other,” says Sue Beeton, associate professor of tourism at La Trobe University in Australia and author of “Film Induced Tourism.”
“Research from New Zealand, Italy and Sweden has found that around 5 percent of visitors come [to those countries] purely because of a film or TV series,” says Beeton. “People can … often change their travel plans once they are aware of activities related to a film.”
“Twilight” and “In Bruges” locations popular
According to Stefan Roesch, a film tourism consultant based in Germany, marketers need to appreciate the difference between film-location tourism and film tourism.
The former focuses on the actual sets and physical locations where favorite movie scenes were shot.
The latter revolves around real-world places that inspired fictional storylines.
“In the ‘Twilight’ films, traveling fans have the dilemma of going to Tuscany, where scenes were actually filmed, or Volterra, where the story is set,” Roesch tells CNN Travel.
The popularity of “Twilight” highlights another lesson -- and misconception -- that tourism officials should note. Dark movies and horror films can actually have a positive impact on a destination’s appeal.
“When destination marketers hear that a horror movie is being filmed in their area, they often tell me they don’t want their area associated with that kind of negativity,” says Roesch. “But I don’t think a negative storyline works differently from positive storylines in terms of tourism impact.”
As an example, Roesch cites the city of Bruges in Belgium, which served as the backdrop for the critically acclaimed 2008 Colin Farrell drama, “In Bruges,” about a hired killer who flees the UK for Belgium.
“Tourism numbers went up after the movie, and the city decided to market itself after the movie, putting up a movie map and putting together guided walking tours,” says Roesch.
Beeton’s research also indicates that a “bad” movie depiction of a destination doesn’t mean it’s bad for tourism.
“Images of crime, for example, are not bad for tourism -- there are a series of very successful tours based around the ‘Sopranos’ TV series,” says Beeton, who is researching the emotional connection that tourists have when visiting a place made special to them through film.
Asians most ardent film tourists
Of any region in the world, travelers from Asia appear most devoted to film tourism.
Visitation rates of film locations is “much higher in Asia with Asian tourists” than in other regions, says Beeton, who is working with colleagues in Japan to understand the cultural reasons behind this difference, which can be many times over, according to reported cases.
The most dramatic example of the power of film to draw Asian tourists is "Lost in Thailand," a wildly popular low-budget Chinese comedy that's been seen by more than 30 million people.
Released in December 2012, the film, which follows rival Chinese businessmen traveling through Thailand, has inspired an explosion of travel in Thailand among Chinese visitors.
According to a Bloomberg story, the film's popularity is expected to increase tourist arrivals in Thailand by a whopping 10 percent in 2013.
“The movie is helping boost sentiment and is increasing people’s desire to visit,” said Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn of the Association of Thai Travel Agents in the Bloomberg story.
Not surprisingly, tourism officials around Asia have begun looking for ways to exploit the exceptional regional popularity of film tourism.
The Korea Tourism Organization is actively seeking to attract more international film productions in the country by having its representatives touring Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
“The monetary support varies by the scale of each project, but in the past we’ve subsidized about 20 percent of the production cost of a foreign movie filming in Korea,” says Sang-won Je, head of the Hallyu (Korean Wave) Tourism Team.
The picture seems clear. Getting your country or location into a film is the ultimate form of product placement -- one that movie fans and travelers are likely to see more and more of in cinemas around the world.