How lockdown propelled the rise of TV tourism

Jul 6, 2022

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Ever cast your mind back to how strange life was under lockdown? It’s all too easy to forget how near-dystopian our behaviour became — starting with the sheer amount of TV we watched.

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. Overnight the world became viewers, not doers.

For almost two years viewers streamed their way around the world, vicariously travelling to hyper-stylised destinations through their smart TVs and 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 ol’ staycations or cookie-cutter resorts sipping the same ol’ Mexican beer.

From dramas to sitcoms and documentaries, streaming travel inspo knows no bounds, perhaps you’ve even been prompted to book a holiday yourself after binging the hottest new series?

The phenomenon itself isn’t necessarily new, but it is growing. Take your parents’ favourite series, for example, Downton Abbey. A show that’s done 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. And like the Fab Four — Downton has even broken America. Google searches within the U.S. for ‘Downton Abbey tours’ have always been popular but skyrocketed in February and March when all travel restrictions in the U.K were finally lifted.

A Google Trends graph of U.S. searches for ‘Downton Abbey tour’ from May 2021 to May 2022 (Screengrab courtesy of Google)

This wouldn’t have been any great surprise to the staff of luxury travel firm Black Tomato. If you’re a holiday booker, Downton, The Crown and Bridgerton make up something of a holy trinity for U.S. travellers looking to visit England and Wales.

“For our American clients, England and Scotland are perennial favourites, but episodes of these shows are certainly helping to drive demand as fans seek to travel beyond the box sets,” says Carolyn Addison, the agency’s Head of Product.

“The promotion for the UK via these phenomenally well-watched programmes 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 travellers a chance to curate a trip around their favourite TV programme. The online interface shilling these trips even mirrors your favourite streaming platforms. Packages are split into ‘seasons’ with big bold visuals merging real-life destinations with the characters of popular shows. Big fan of Westworld? 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!

Some of Black Tomato’s Set-Jetting packages (Screengrab: courtesy of Black Tomato

The packages may have come into existence before the ‘first season’ of lockdown but 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,” says Addison. And all it takes is a show to take off to see another destination become the latest buzz-trip. “In particular, we’ve seen a huge uptick in requests for Paris this year, 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, 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.

Lucien Laviscount (left) and Lily Collins (right) in Emily in Paris (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

It doesn’t stop there. Netflix is shaping leisure and cultural interests like never before; Formula 1 docu-series 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 record half-a-million-plus crowds at the Australian GP in Melbourne last April, Aussie GP boss Andrew Westacot hailed the series as a “marketing bonanza.” One 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.”

But what effects can a popular series have on run-of-the-mill businesses on the ground? The industry behind the travel industry — smaller independent business which, 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.

Connell and Marianna at the Italian villa in Normal People (Photo courtesy of Element Pictures / Screen Ireland)

Perched in rural Sant’Oreste, Lazio, a little over 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, who hosts the villa on Airbnb and lives with her
family in the main house on the property, tells The Points Guy.

“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 adds.

Over 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 is shot on location in the area and 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 favourite scenes. Back outside, running alongside 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.

Cristina pictured with Ted Lasso stars Jason Sudekis (left) and Brendan Hunt (right). Photo: courtesy of Cristina Lelli

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 tourist, the real-life doorway to Ted’s flat is actually different to the one that appears onscreen. 24 hours before filming commences a production team completely removes the door for Lasso’s flat and fit 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 says. “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.”

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 particualr 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.

(Photo courtesy of: Apple TV)

In 2019, locals told the BBC that bumper-to-bumper traffic was making some communities unsafe. Meanwhile, Alex Rowe of Plymouth University wrote a PhD 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 around Ted Lasso comes down to the lead character’s eternal optimism, 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 holiday around a TV 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 their mental vision turns out to be accurate or not it doesn’t matter — it’s real to them.

Featured photo — Emily In Paris courtesy of Netflix.

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