How the pandemic propelled the rise of television tourism
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Do you ever cast your mind back to how strange life was under lockdown? It’s all too easy to forget how near-dystopian our behavior became — starting with the sheer amount of television we watched.
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In the first few months of lockdown, as Netflix subscriptions increased by 16 million worldwide, Brits alone spent a daily average of six hours and 25 minutes consuming TV and streaming content. In the U.S., there was also a marked increase in the time people spent watching television during the pandemic.
Overnight the world became viewers, not doers.
For almost two years, viewers streamed their way around the world, vicariously traveling to hyper-stylized destinations through their smart TVs. Now, many want to explore these places for real.
As a result, there’s a new crop of tourists in the airport lounge: A culture vulture no longer satisfied by the same old staycations or cookie-cutter resorts.
From dramas and documentaries to sitcoms and limited series, streaming travel inspiration knows no bounds. Perhaps you’ve even been prompted to book a getaway yourself after binging the hottest new show.
The phenomenon itself isn’t necessarily new, but it is growing.
Take your parents’ favorite series, “Downton Abbey,” for example. This show did for period dramas what The Beatles did for rock music.
Droves of diehard Downton fans have flocked to its Highclere Castle setting in Hampshire for well over a decade now. Like the Fab Four, Downton even exploded in the U.S.
Google searches within the U.S. for “Downton Abbey tours” have always been popular, but they skyrocketed in February and March when all travel restrictions in the U.K were finally lifted.
This wouldn’t have been any great surprise to the staff of luxury travel firm Black Tomato. If you’re a travel booking company, “Downton Abbey,” “The Crown” and “Bridgerton” make up something of a holy trinity for U.S. travelers looking to visit England and Wales.
“For our American clients, England and Scotland are perennial favorites, but episodes of these shows are certainly helping to drive demand as fans seek to travel beyond the box sets,” said Carolyn Addison, the agency’s head of product.
“The promotion for the U.K. via these phenomenally well-watched programs has never been better, more dramatic, daring or more beautiful. We’ve seen not only a surge in requests to visit the places [these shows] were shot but also for spectacular, country houses and historic landscapes in general.”
Since 2015, the boutique agency has offered “Set-Jetting” holidays, a special type of package giving travelers a chance to curate a trip around their favorite television program.
The online interface promoting these trips even mirrors your favorite streaming platforms. Packages are split into so-called seasons with big, bold visuals merging real-life destinations with the characters of popular shows.
If you’re a big fan of “Westworld,” for example, you can saddle up and head to Utah. Looking to skulk around the Vatican as Jude Law did in “The Young Pope”? Hallelujah! You’re in luck!
The packages may have come into existence before the first season of lockdown, however, Addison believes there’s a direct correlation between two years of travel restrictions and an increased interest in televisual tourism right now.
“After months spent in lockdown longing to get away, it’s a natural knock-on effect that with the restart of travel there’s increased appetite to journey to places that people have relished watching on screen.”
“As well as providing an inspiring backdrop, these destinations evoke memories of notable scenes and characters and give a sense of familiarity, which is comforting,” Addison explained.
All it takes is a show to take off for another destination to become the latest buzz trip.
“In particular, we’ve seen a huge uptick in requests for Paris this year,” Addison added, “which we put down to the halo effect of ‘Emily in Paris.'”
Indeed, when the second season of “Emily in Paris” dropped on Netflix last December, viewers watched the fashionista venture beyond the French capital, topping up her tan everywhere from Var to Saint-Tropez to Alpes-Maritimes.
Within a month of airing, Hotels.com revealed it saw a 30% increase in accommodation searches for those same locations compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Saint-Tropez alone witnessed an 80% rise against activity seen in 2019.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Effects of popular series
Netflix is shaping leisure and cultural interests like never before. The Formula 1 docuseries “Drive to Survive” is one notable example.
Charting the wheel-to-wheel action and dramas between the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen across a multitude of glamorous locations, the show has been credited with redefining the live demographic of the sport.
Following the record half-a-million-plus crowds at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne last April, Andrew Westacot — the Australian Grand Prix Corporation CEO — hailed the series as a “marketing bonanza” that has introduced the traditionally male-centric sport to entirely new audiences.
And, clearly, they’re willing to travel.
“Ticket purchasing used to be 75% male to 25% female,” he said. “Purchasing for this year was 60-40%, so there is a huge increase in female purchasing.”
What effects can a popular series have on run-of-the-mill businesses on the ground? The industry behind the travel industry: smaller, independent businesses that, by fortune or fate, have become miniseries meccas.
If you’re one of the millions who sobbed over “Normal People,” the hit romantic drama based on Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel of the same name, chances are you saw its two lead characters Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianna (Daisy Edgar-Jones) saunter around a now-iconic Italian farmhouse.
Perched in rural Sant’Oreste, Lazio, a little more than a 30-minute drive from Rome, the rustic villa has seen an influx of international visitors since the show aired.
“Tourism has certainly increased thanks to this series,” Giada Riccioni told TPG. Riccioni hosts the villa on Airbnb and lives with her family in the main house on the property.
“People are intrigued by the location because they shot here. Most people who come because of [“Normal People”] come from England and Ireland, but also from Germany and Italy. We’ve even had visitors from America,” she added.
In Richmond, West London, home of Apple TV hit “Ted Lasso,” its leafy streets have more bustle than ever.
Eschewing studio backlots and green screen, much of the Golden Globe-winning series was shot on location in the area.
Its quintessentially British backdrops feel every bit as welcoming and authentic as their titular soccer coach, played by Jason Sudekis. It’s postcard-perfect, but nothing feels fake.
Much of the action takes place in and around a small concrete court adjacent to Richmond Green, featuring a shiny red telephone box, a wooden bench and a charming pub (The Crown and Anchor in the show, The Prince’s Head in real life).
Fans regularly gather here, raising a pint just like the great man himself might, to recreate their favorite scenes.
Back outside, running along the courtyard you’ll find a narrow row of shops where Lasso rents a flat and can often be seen walking on the way to training — or back home via the pub.
One of those stores, a family-owned Italian fashion and knitwear business, Reale Camiceria, faces the front door of Lasso’s apartment.
“Everyone stops to photograph the street and our shop. It is a pilgrimage for fans,” co-owner Cristina Lelli told TPG. “They go to the pub, stop at the telephone booth, stop at the bench and visit here.”
This is easier said than done. Sure to have flatfooted many wandering tourists, the real-life doorway to Lasso’s flat is actually different from the one that appears onscreen.
Just 24 hours before filming commences, a production team completely removes the door for Lasso’s flat and fits a new one, right down to the door number.
Many of these visitors are compatriots of Lasso, according to Lelli. “American customers are crazy for ‘Ted Lasso,’” she said.
“A few days ago, a gentleman came into the shop and told me he’d decided to take his wife to London two years ago, before COVID, [when] he finally gave her the gift they had to visit Richmond because they were fans of the show.”
Is overtourism a concern?
Of course, for every tourism boom, every in-vogue place to visit, there can also be negative sides to a location becoming too popular.
Richmond council may not be about to follow Venice’s lead and start charging day-trippers to avoid overtourism anytime soon, but it wouldn’t be a particular surprise if Cornwall took that road.
Due to the rise in popular shows shot around its rugged coastline (dubbed “the ‘Poldark’ effect” after the BBC period show of the same name), there are fears that this already tourist-friendly Cornish region is succumbing to overtourism and even losing its own identity to the influx.
In 2019, locals told the BBC that bumper-to-bumper traffic was making some communities unsafe. Meanwhile, Alex Rowe of Plymouth University wrote a Ph.D. paper on whether the so-called “Poldark effect” threatened Cornish identity.
“The uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the almost certain prospect of losing funds available to invest in Cornish heritage will mean that heritage attractions will continue to pursue avenues that will generate the largest incomes,” he told Plymouth University’s website at the time.
“The ‘Poldark’ effect looks likely to continue playing a major part in how mining heritage sites promote themselves and generate revenue.”
For places that aren’t already swarmed by tourists, however, there’s no escaping that small-screen-inspired tourism can be a positive, opening up new avenues for businesses and allowing visitors to connect with a destination on a far deeper level than ever before.
Much of the popularity of “Ted Lasso” comes down to the lead character’s eternal optimism and his own unyielding faith in finding the very best in people.
The now-iconic sign that hangs in his dressing room on screen — and is often scrawled on a chalkboard outside the Prince’s Head in real life — simply reads, “Believe.”
By basing a vacation around a television show, visitors believe, too. They find a sense of belonging and community in a place they’ve never set foot in, yet have visited sometimes hundreds of times before.
Whether or not their mental vision turns out to be accurate doesn’t matter. It’s real to them.
Featured photo of Emily In Paris courtesy of Netflix.
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