Perils of Fame | These Once-Beautiful Film Locations Are Victims of Their Own Success

A Star Wars and Game of Thrones Locations Manager tells us about the bittersweet pill of putting remote destinations on the map

by Tabi Jackson Gee
May 3 2018, 9:12am

This June the beach from The Beach will be shut down for three months. Ironically, given the themes of the film, its release triggered years of rampant tourism and the idyllic once-paradisical stretch of untouched sand and sea is now a shadow of its former self. Facing the prospect of ruining the area forever, the local Thai authorities have decided to give it a well-deserved break.

The closure will take place for four months to give the coral reef time to recover. Similar measures have been introduced on other Thai islands – in 2016 local authorities closed Koh Tachai – but it is the first time tourists will be completely banned from visiting Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh.

Despite the challenges this brand of film-tourism can bring about, countries are increasingly trying to make themselves attractive to production teams – who will do their PR for their them in the shape of blockbusters and artfully shot features – by offering generous tax breaks. According to the Centre National du Cinéma in France in 2015 filmmakers received a 20% tax credit and cameras rolled for a total of 5,013 days. The following year, the tax credit rose to 30% and cameras rolled for 5,561 days.

Leonardo DiCaprio trying to escape from the tourist hordes of Phuket in The Beach. Ironically the film has unleashed a wave of mass tourism on the island where it was filmed. Photo: courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Tourism has its ups and downs. Visitor numbers in Thailand, for instance, have tripled since 2004 – in 2017 they exceeded 35m – and some reports estimate it accounts for 18% of the country’s GDP. But as The Beach itself showed, this kind of mass tourism can dilute indigenous cultures and be disastrous for local ecosystems.

Over in the Western hemisphere Northern Ireland is another slightly bittersweet story – the country’s profile has risen in recent years thanks to the popularity of Game of Thrones and US blockbusters like The Last Jedi being filmed on location there. Visitor expenditure rose by 18% to £951m last year and in the 12 months to September 2017 the number of trips rose by 11%.

While its hard to link the two statistically, Northern Ireland’s swell of visitors neatly coincided with a swell of tour operators offering GoT tours. These include fairly harmless activities like an ‘Archery Movie Set Experience’, a filming location cycle tour, glamping mini-breaks and luxury private tours of ‘Winterfell’.

This thriving industry – which merges fandom and tourism – has attracted everyone from the likes of Expedia to small-scale independent businesses cashing in on the popularity of the films. Tripadvisor reviews talk about the authenticity of the tours and the beauty of the places visited and also advise that this is a great way to see the local area. Which if you’re into this kind of thing, it probably is. And these tours bring previously neglected places to a whole new audience with a desire to travel and cash to burn.

But without the right regulations and operations in place the money generated doesn’t benefit the people who own the land used for filming and lack of conservation planning can – as was the case with Koh Phi Phi Leh – cause irreparable damage to the landscape.

Fragile ecosystems can suffer from too much tourism. Photo: Conor Luddy

Location Manager Catherine Geary has worked on some of the biggest blockbusters filmed in Northern Ireland – including Game of Thrones and The Last Jedi – so she’s had a close up on the effect that films have had on the places they put on the map. “I think it’s a certain type of person or psychology that would actively hunt out a film location to visit on holiday,” says Geary. “The fans of the Star Wars franchise or Game of Thrones are those type of people.”

For the most part, though, Geary sees this as a good thing. “Certain areas of the West Coast of Ireland have traditionally been bypassed by tourism but with the development of the Wild Atlantic Way and publicity with the likes of Star Wars I’d like to think that the financial impact will be beneficial,” she says.

But some aren’t so lucky. How does a farmer benefit from increased traffic on a local public footpath across his fields? “Frequently the actual owner is the last to benefit, or see the potential benefits, unless they are an existing business” says Geary.

“So if I approach a farmer who owns a cliff in Kerry, where public walkers have crossed his land for free for decades, it is unlikely that he is going to be able to create an income from a successful film. Does he give up farming and set up a ticket booth? Charge admission? Does he put an honesty box at the gate? Unlikely. Whereas if there is a cafe nearby it will no doubt benefit significantly.”

There is a dangerous side to this type of tourism too, particularly when it’s undertaken irresponsibly. Films that inspire copycat trips, such as Into The Wild, can lead fans to wander into very serious trouble. Several rescues are estimated to take place every year on the trail to find Christopher McCandless’s van. Park rangers, the local fire department, and Alaska state troopers all have to pitch in.

Northern Ireland has benefitted from a boom in Game of Thrones tourism. Photo: courtesy of Visit Northern Ireland.

On a lighter note, visitors also diversify local economies by creating a new industry and therefore jobs and opportunities for generations. From Thailand to Belfast, remote locations are often the ones that struggle the most to survive. Films can raise their profile and provide a lifeline. As Geary says: “Rather than what’s happened before where young people were having to leave these areas to work elsewhere. Where historically the industry was either farming or fishing – it can only strengthen communities to have some diversity even though the tourism may only be at certain times of the year.”

Geary also references a contact from a location used on The Last Jedi with a cottage he would occasionally rent out. Recently it has been booked solidly every weekend. She puts this down to the area being on map because of the film. That, or the guy just discovered Air BnB.