In the early 2000s, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were a shot in the arm for New Zealand tourism.
Fans of the trilogy flocked to our shores from around the world to see the dramatic scenery of Middle Earth for themselves. Guidebooks were produced, tours organised and souvenirs manufactured.
On the other side of the world, German tourism student Stefan Roesch was taking notice.
After he saw a news headline about the hordes of Hobbit-obsessives descending on New Zealand’s scenic spots, Roesch decided to come here to research the phenomenon of film location tourism.
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“I kind of knew that they had removed all of the sets, so where do you go, what do you look at? … I thought I have to look into this,” he says.
Roesch completed his PhD in Tourism at the University of Otago in 2007. He accompanied groups of film tourists to Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand, spots from the Sound of Music in Austria, and the deserts of Tunisia which stood in for the planet Tatooine in Star Wars.
Using photographs, video and interviews Roesch documented the fans’ reaction to seeing the locations in the flesh. He asked them about their motivations to travel to these far flung places.
His work on the subject was published in a 2010 book, The Experiences of Film Location Tourists.
It was clear to Roesch that there was a gap in the tourism industry’s knowledge when it came to film tourism, and he set about filling it. New Zealand has led the way in capitalising on its silver screen fame, but other countries haven’t been so savvy.
“Tourism New Zealand, Air New Zealand – they have been at the forefront of developing that area. There are a few other countries that have done a lot around film tourism, especially the UK, but there are still many regions in the world where the potential is there but they don’t do anything,” Roesch says.
In the ten years since finishing his thesis, Roesch has built up a career as an expert on film and television location tourism. Cased in New Zealand, he works as a consultant for overseas organisations who want to convert their countries’ on-screen appearances into tourist visits.
His latest consulting project was in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan, for the Jordan Tourism Board and Jordan’s Royal Film Commission.
“So many films were shot there, like blockbusters, from Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones to The Martian, Star Wars. But they don’t use it, neither in their destination promotion, nor in showing people around on location.”
In 2015 he spent time in Northern Ireland helping promote the country’s Game of Thrones links.
So why do people fly halfway around the world to visit film locations? For the serious fans, Roesch says it seems to be about seeking moments, however brief, where the film feels real.
“It’s happened to me a few times, you really feel like you are in that fantasy world. Not for very long, you go in and out. It sounds maybe a bit dorky, but actually I think it happens to all of us, especially when you watch that particular scene just before you get onto the location, and then you go, ‘Oh my god, this is where the Martian sat, right there on that rock!'”
And although film locations might draw tourists to a country or region, Roesch says film tourists are often interactive and intrepid travellers.
“Often those people are the ones who are the most interested in the hosting culture, they combine a location visit with really experiencing that culture.”
There are real benefits for host country in chasing the film tourism dollar; just look at all the hoops our government jumped through to keep The Hobbit in New Zealand.
“Film tourism can also be really beneficial because it can achieve a regional spread. It’s often not really focused on the hot-spots, and often it’s smaller communities that profit from it, and often they also travel out of season, so it can be really good in terms of having that regional spread and balancing out seasonal situations,” Roesch says.
Roesch also runs a film location travel web site with his partner, FilmQuest.co.