Film it, and will they come?

Associate Professor Sue Beeton, PhD
Email: s.beeton@latrobe.edu.au

First aired on ABC Radio: Film it, and will they come?

In most discussions about the way that movies can encourage tourism to Australia, films such as Crocodile Dundee are cited. Crocodile Dundee remains one of our most popular movies, both in Australia and overseas, however stating that it categorically increased international tourism to the country is drawing a long bow. The release of the movie coincided with a number of things happening in Australia in the 1980s that encouraged tourism from North America, including the floating of the Australian dollar, the 1988 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and our bi-centennial celebrations.

In addition, Paul Hogan had been used to successfully promote Australia to the North American market for some years prior to Crocodile Dundee. In actual fact, many Americans referred to the movie as 'starring that guy from the TV ads'. While the movie may have added to Americans' desire to visit Australia as well as reinforcing a particular 'type' of Australian, it is impossible to credit the movie as single-handedly increasing tourism to Australia.

So, what about New Zealand and The Lord of the Rings movies? Media reports have led us to believe the effect has been nothing short of spectacular. Certainly the movies have created greater interest in international visitation to New Zealand, however most research to date does not demonstrate a strong growth in international visitation driven specifically by the Lord of the Rings.

That said, there are a number of enterprises that have benefitted, such as the site of Hobbiton and some specialised tours, but what we are seeing here is visitors who were coming to New Zealand anyway simply changing their visitation patterns. Hobbiton is located near the town of Matamata, a classic 'toilet stop' between Auckland and Rotorua – Visitors now stay there longer, sometimes overnight. Such alterations of travel can have significant impacts on other tourist attractions.

Nevertheless, there will be some fans travelling from other parts of the world on a Lord of the Rings pilgrimage; and this can be expected to increase over the years, but will not in itself be a major, primary motivator for international visitors.

Research data indicates that those movies that have been successful in attracting tourism tend to be associated with a book that is popular in its own right and providing longevity to the story (such as The Da Vinci Code), has an existing cult following because of that (as with The Lord of the Rings); or is one of a range of movies filmed there over the years (such as in cities like New York, Rome, Paris, or Monument Valley in the US for westerns).

In fact, there are more movies that do not induce tourism than those that do, let alone those that may actively decrease visitation, such as Wolf Creek (set around the Kimberley region). One recent example of a tourism failure is the Ned Kelly movie that was believed to be able to increase tourism to small communities such as Clunes in Victoria. Unfortunately, it did not.

So, when I hear talk about the power of a single movie to increase tourism (especially international tourism), I am concerned, particularly when the sites are in relatively remote areas that are traditionally difficult for international visitors to access. This is the case with the site of Baz Luhrmann's Australia in the Kimberley region, some 100k west of Kununurra. International visitors, especially the desirable Japanese and Americans, have extremely limited time for their visit, and even getting to Darwin will be problematic and require them to forego visiting other places in Australia.

I am even more concerned when I see State and Federal government funds being put into promoting such ventures, with little if any independent research into the phenomenon of 'film-induced tourism' as appears to be the case with the forthcoming movie, Australia. Rhetoric from Tourism Australia's corporate web site (www.tourism.australia.com) such as "[find out] … how you can leverage the phenomenon that will be created as a result of the release of Baz Luhrmann's Australia...” (own emphasis) smacks of boosterism. Statistics that have been challenged academically and shown to be inaccurate are blithely presented to support this.

Film can induce tourism and is a powerful emotional image creator, but one of the primary issues in attracting international visitors to Australia is the distance from its main international markets. This makes it challenging to convert potential visitors' desire to travel here into reality, even though Australia is regularly ranked as among the most desirable places for Americans to visit. Movies certainly have the potential to contribute to this desire, and may eventually be instrumental in converting desire into action for some visitors. We just need to be realistic and pay attention to all of the research available, not simply those reports that support a particular view.

Associate Professor Beeton is the author of the book, Film-Induced Tourism and numerous research papers on the topic. She has spoken at international conferences and events, including the Venice Film Festival, the London Screen Tourism Conference, the Film and TV Tourism Conference in Hong Kong, the Rome Film Festival and the Ischia Film Locations Festival.

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