Long before I ever set foot in London, I formed an impression of the British capital based entirely on the movies I'd seen. Mary Poppins—one of my mother's favorite films—left me with a rather outdated image of a city full of black umbrellas and dapper chimney sweeps. Sidney Poitier's To Sir With Love made its grittiness seem charming. More recent British flicks don't offer any more accurate a portrayal of the town I now call home. Films such as Notting Hilland Bridget Jones’s Diarygive one the (mistaken) notion that life in London is nothing but quaint bookstores and hard-won romantic bliss. Yet despite these cinematic distortions—or perhaps because of them—merely catching a glimpse of London on the big screen always made me want to go there.
Tourism officials from Manchester to Mumbai are waking up to the fact that vacationers are drawn to the places they first get to know through films. And no one is better at luring film buffs than the Brits, says Stefan Roesch, who's written an upcoming book on screen tourism. In recent years, British tourism agencies have begun arming visitors with maps of famous London film settings, and have launched campaigns around blockbusters like The Da Vinci Code. Now the British are banking on a slew of new movies—including fresh adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr., and Robin Hood, featuring Russell Crowe—to help fill the country's empty hotel rooms. London Mayor Boris Johnson even visited New York to promote the city where Disney's new 3-D animated version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is spectacularly set.
Other countries are catching on. New Zealand saw dozens of Lord of the Rings tour operators spring up once the epic trilogy hit theaters. A Lord of the Rings Tours day trip includes a helicopter jaunt of various film locations and a chance to handle weapons and costumes (lordoftheringstours.co.nz; $1,200). And Red Carpet Tours provides an epic 12-day journey through Tolkien's Middle-earth (redcarpet-tours.com; $4,500). The sleepy Swedish town of Ystad has been happily inundated with devotees of the wildly popular Wallander series of crime novels, which have been made into films. The town of 17,000 even opened a film museum that runs regular walking tours of the murder scenes investigated by one of Sweden's best-loved detectives.
Committed fans will go out of their way for a glimpse of a favorite film location. In Salzburg, 44 years after The Sound of Musicdebuted, 300,000 screen tourists each year clamor for a snapshot of themselves in front of the hills where Julie Andrews sang "Do-Re-Mi," says Roesch. Panorama Tours provides packages complete with bed and breakfast (panoramatours.com; about $190 per person per night). Scotland sees a steady flow of visitors looking to re-create scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grailat the remote Doune Castle, where it was filmed. When my mother finally visited London for the first time, we went searching—unsuccessfully—for 17 Cherry Tree Lane, where Mary Poppins lived and worked.
Exact figures on the impact of film tourism are difficult to come by, but in the case of Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Spanish tourism agents claim that just having that city's name in the title boosted visitor numbers. London also tried to capitalize on the director's 2005 movie Match Pointby providing tourist maps for the film. In fact, the auteur brings so much cachet that cities around the world are vying for a visit from his location scouts. Rio de Janeiro is actively wooing the filmmaker with millions in subsidies in the hope that a film set there would prime international tourists for a visit ahead of the 2016 Olympics. And if money can't persuade Allen to make the journey, maybe watching a good Brazilian movie will do the trick.
The Lord of the Rings
The Sound of Music
Field of Dreams