Watch and Go – How do TV and film influence Chinese travellers?

Image: Malin Head, Donegal, Republic of Ireland. Appeared in the latest Star Wars franchise films.

Is it really a travel incentive?

Travelling abroad to visit film and television locations is an often-overlooked tourism incentive. Since Chinese tourists are beginning to favour authentic travel experiences over shopping and organised group tour packages, travelling to see film and television shooting locations, often in remote areas of countries steeped with history or natural beauty, plays right into this narrative.

Despite the blind-eye turned to articles and reports concerning this subject, it is hardly a recent phenomenon. I am guilty myself of reserving particular days of my holiday itinerary to visit iconic film and TV locations, such as Tokyo’s Park Hyatt Hotel, famously featured in Lost in Translation, and the city walls of Dubrovnik, which double as King’s Landing in Game of Thrones (more on this later). I’m certainly not alone – the Making of Harry Potter studio tour at Warner Bros Studios in Watford was the most-booked attraction through TripAdvisor last year.

This article hopes to uncover how and why film and TV location tourism is an important trend tour operators should consider when developing products for Chinese tourists.

Lights, Camera, Action

A recent webinar co-hosted by Mafengwo revealed while Chinese people watch films or TV for its content and characters, they also pay close attention to shooting locations. According to Mafengwo, 25% of Chinese FIT travellers will visit a film or TV shooting location during their next domestic or international trip. 42% of these FIT travellers are from the post-90s generation, meaning this is a hugely popular travel experience among young people.

Reality shows, TV series, and animations have more influence over FIT travellers than any other genre. Nicholas Tse, a famous Chinese chef, recently visited New Zealand to film his reality show Chef Nic, which has received over 1.04 billion hits across Tencent and iQiyi since 2014. China is “New Zealand’s second largest international visitor market”, meaning Chef Nic may help attract Chinese travellers to New Zealand.

Among the most popular destinations to visit due to film and TV shooting locations are Northern Ireland, Turkey’s Istanbul, Morocco’s Casablanca, Iceland, and the Koh Chang ‘Elephant Island’ in Thailand. Elephant Island is the filming location of the popular Chinese reality show Chinese Restaurant, which invites Chinese celebrities to open and run their own independent restaurant. Following the success of the show’s pilot episode, broadcast in July 2017, Elephant Island witnessed a 547% increase in visitors.

The ‘Lost in Thailand effect’

This was not the first time Thailand had welcomed international visitors to its shores for its filming locations. Film enthusiasts have been visiting the country’s northern city of Chiang Mai in droves since December 2012 when the Chinese comedy, Lost in Thailand, became a surprise blockbuster hit. By early January 2013, the film had grossed over RMB 1 billion, becoming China’s most successful homegrown production.

Lost in Thailand’s success was a driving factor in Thailand, welcoming 4.7 million Chinese visitors in 2013. The growth in tourism numbers to Thailand continues to be outstanding, with 8.8 million Chinese tourists visiting the country in 2016. On Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce website, travel agencies continue to offer Lost in Thailand-themed activities, such as crossing rivers on elephant back.

Seattle has seen similar success with the 2013 Chinese romantic comedy Finding Mr Right, known in China simply as Beijing Meets Seattle. The film’s popularity helped attract more than 75,000 Chinese visitors to the seaport city in 2013.

According to The Guardian, in 2014, more than a third of homes priced over $1 million in exclusive parts of Seattle and in its suburbs were “being bought by Chinese owners looking to move to America”. The success of these films in China has made tour operators realise the potential in attracting Chinese travellers to destinations featured in popular films and television series.

Europe is also benefitting

Europe has also tasted the fruit borne from this trend. In 2015, popular Chinese travel website Qyer attributed the popularity of Czech Republic, Switzerland and Turkey to the phenomenon of hit films and TV shows. Czech Republic witnessed a 119% increase in spending by Chinese tourists in 2015 – the country benefitted from the success of Somewhere Only We Know, the first Chinese film to be set in Prague. Like Seattle, direct flights from Beijing to Prague were introduced, seven months following the film’s Chinese release in mid-September of 2015.

The lasting influence of Somewhere Only We Know is still evident – over 491,000 Chinese tourists visited Czech Republic in 2017. The steps of the Rudolfinum, featured in the film’s finale, are still a popular place for Chinese tourists to gather and take photos.

Why international co-productions are important

Many countries have attempted to capitalise on the success of Chinese productions filmed abroad to improve their own tourism numbers. In 2015, following Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s, visit to China, three deals were made to create India-China co-productions, one of which was directed by a star of Lost in Thailand. China also made cooperation agreements with Russia and Spain in 2017 in the hope of rolling out their domestic films overseas. With regards to the China-Russia agreement, between Russian Film Group and Chinese film company Yangtze, the two countries plan to collaborate on three feature films planned for theatrical release, investing around $50 million each.

However, co-productions aren’t always a stable bet. The Great Wall, released in 2017 and starring Matt Damon, is the most expensive China-US co-production to date, but it fell short of box office forecasts, despite becoming one of China’s highest grossing films. The difficulty with co-productions is “finding films and stories that can work both in China and international markets”, but if done correctly, these films can gain mass market, international appeal – drawing more eyes to the locations shown on-screen.

Closer to home

The UK’s film and television history also contributes to its popularity. Our recent article on the EU-China Tourism Year explored some of the UK’s key film and television-related attractions that appeal to Chinese tourists – from Castle Howard to Dover Castle. While these particular locations are well-known for their cultural heritage, their appearance in popular British dramas and Disney musicals attract hundreds of thousands of overseas tourists every year.

The HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones, most of which is shot in Northern Ireland, has become surprisingly popular in China. When the first season aired there in 2014, it was heavily censored by China Central Television, which removed all traces of violence and nudity. In this form, Asia Times described the show as like “watching a documentary of European castles on the History Channel”.

Since then, the rise of online video platforms in China like Youku, and WeChat mini programs like Tencent Video, have allowed viewers to watch uncensored versions of the show with Mandarin subtitles.

Ctrip discovered that Game of Thrones is putting countries like Croatia, Northern Ireland, and Iceland on the Chinese map. The online travel agency reported that the number of Chinese tourists who booked a visit to Croatia through the website in the first half of 2017 increased by 300% compared with 2016, while Iceland saw its tour booking numbers increase by 148%.

In August 2017, Tourism Ireland ran a promotion to remind Chinese fans that Northern Ireland is “one of the main filming locations of Game of Thrones”, which was estimated to be seen by 14 million people across Chinese social networks, film review sites, and Tourism Ireland’s social media accounts.

This was followed by the news that Northern Ireland is expecting over 2.3 million visitors in 2018 because of China’s emerging market. The recent announcement that Cathay Pacific will launch the first direct flight between Hong Kong and Dublin this year will help achieve this, helping to expand Northern Ireland’s visitors to the 100 Chinese nationals living in and around the Chinese city. Clearly, an international phenomenon like Thrones can incentivise travellers to visit places previously overshadowed by more popular destinations.

Show me the money

It looks as if film and television shooting locations are becoming a significant draw for Chinese tourists, and are a key incentive for them to travel abroad. The importance of film and television in travel of tourism should not be understated, and tour operators and DMOs should closely monitor Chinese productions set to film abroad so they can pounce early on any opportunities to promote their tours and destination.

If you are interested in the benefits of attracting more Chinese visitors, please contact us for a chat.

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