Against the gleaming backdrop of the Adriatic Sea lies a city encircled by hulking stone walls that date as far back as the ninth century. More recently, Dubrovnik has found its way onto the world stage as a site of violence, conspiracy and steamy affairs thanks to its alter ego as the fictional city of King’s Landing in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
The blockbuster HBO series Game of Thrones, based on Martin’s novels, premiered in 2011 and became an instant hit. As the city of King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms and home to the infamous Lannister family, Dubrovnik featured in much of the filming. The show’s popularity grew, and visitors began to flock to the Pearl of the Adriatic to see the site of the coveted Iron Throne for themselves.
These travellers would be rewarded. In Dubrovnik, visitors can walk the limestone streets among Baroque churches, monasteries and palaces where Cersei Lannister began her memorable walk of shame in season five, or visit Gradac Park, the site of the Purple Wedding feast where the malicious King Joffrey was finally toppled.
In Trsteno Arboretum, colourful bougainvillea bushes and picturesque pergolas draped in vines bring life to the gardens of the Red Keep, while the abandoned Hotel Belvedere is the same place where Oberyn and the Mountain fought an unforgettable, bloody battle in the fourth season.
Increasingly, travellers are choosing to visit destinations that double as the sets of their favourite TV shows and films. In fact, 80 million international tourists in 2017 said they chose a travel destination primarily because they saw a movie or television show filmed there, according to research agency Tourism Competitive Intelligence (TCI). This figure is growing fast, having doubled in just two years.
The Game of Thrones effect
A simple Google search for Game of Thrones tours in Dubrovnik yields over one million results, with numerous websites claiming to offer the best historic information or the most salacious insider gossip. The city has embraced the source of its tourism influx, with the tourist board of Dubrovnik even producing its own map of Dubrovnik as King’s Landing.
The rampant success of Game of Thrones continues to grow even as the show approaches its eighth and final season. The most recent series finale shattered ratings records with 12.1 million viewers, according to data company Nielsen.
Taking into account the viewers who tuned in on streaming service HBO Go and the HBO Now app, a total of 16.5 million watched the dramatic season seven finale. Game of Thrones viewership rose 36 percent from 2016’s finale and was 19 percent higher than the sixth season premiere, which notched just over 10 million viewers.
But it is not just obsessive fans that are propelling the show’s success; Game of Thrones has also garnered critical acclaim. The show has racked up 38 Emmy awards, the most of any single TV series, and in 2015 it set a record for winning the most Primetime Emmys for a show in a single year, with 12 wins out of 24 nominations.
Last year, Game of Thrones did not win any Emmys for the first time since 2011 – but that was only because the series aired after the official cut-off date.
Awards aside, Game of Thrones has had a significant economic impact on Croatia, which is just one of its many filming locations. Researchers from the Institute of Economics in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, (IEZ) published an article in the International Journal of Tourism Research arguing that due to the filming of Game of Thrones, the number of tourists arriving in Dubrovnik rose by around 60,000 per year from 2012 to 2015, or around 10 percent.
Films shot on location have two economic impacts: one is the short-term economic boost during the shooting period, and the second is the country’s long-term public perception
Speaking to Business Destinations, Andrea Mervar, Senior Research Associate at the IEZ, said the filming of Game of Thrones has drawn in a segment of tourists that “probably otherwise would not find Dubrovnik as their preferred destination”.
Mervar continued: “Due to a number of direct and indirect effects, it is very difficult to estimate the precise impact of film tourism on the economy. Nevertheless, there has been evidence that its impact on the increase of tourist arrivals (and overnight stays and revenues), especially in the case of filming worldwide famous films, has been significant.”
The Croatian Audiovisual Centre found local expenditures from filming in the country rose from around €3m ($3.5m) in 2012 to €21m ($24.3m) in 2015. These figures only account for productions taking part in the government’s incentive system, meaning the true total is even higher, Mervar said.
Olivier Henry-Biabaud, CEO of TCI, argued that films shot on location have two economic impacts: one is the short-term economic boost during the shooting period, and the second is the country’s long-term public perception. These twin benefits boost the area’s overall attractiveness for businesses, students and tourists.
“Also, the noise around favourable fiscal context for film shooting can have a great impact on investment in other sectors,” Henry-Biabaud told Business Destinations. Mervar said the effects of film tourism in Croatia have rippled out to the catering and transport sectors.
Game of Thrones’ production in Dubrovnik has also provided thousands of jobs to extras, support crew and businesses. In an interview with Bloomberg in 2015, Gina Pecotic, who played an extra on the show and lives in Croatia, said the experience had given her a reason to hope the country could emerge from its recession. “This series has energised Dubrovnik, and it’s great fun and a privilege to be part of it.”
Pecotic’s wishes came true; Game of Thrones helped Croatia emerge from a grim, six-year recession in 2015. “Recession in Croatia lasted longer than in most of the other countries,” Mervar said. The country’s overall GDP lost around 12 percent from 2009 to 2014, resulting in Croatia’s next-to-last position among EU members by GDP per capita.
Despite boosts from record-high tourist seasons and access to the European Union internal market, which Croatia joined in 2013, the country of 4.1 million has not yet returned to pre-crisis growth rates, according to the World Bank. GDP is roughly one percent lower than in the pre-crisis period, and youth unemployment remains high, at 33 percent.
The annual increase in visitors to Dubrovnik between 2012 and 2015
International production spend in Croatia in 2015
Revenue generated from Croatian tourism in the first nine months of 2017
Youth unemployment rate in Croatia
Dubrovnik has a chequered history. In the 16th century, the city possessed one of the largest merchant naval fleets in the world, but the Old Town – the centre of activity – was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1667. The city was again overtaken by violence in 1991 with shelling by the Yugoslav People’s Army during the Croatian War of Independence. Despite this, a culture of sophisticated, vibrant people has persevered.
Now, the economy has come to rely on the tourist trade. Tourism activity was a very important factor in helping Croatia recover from recession, according to Mervar. Importantly, Croatia has enjoyed a “security dividend” compared with its main competitors on the Mediterranean tourist market, she said, with countries like Greece and Turkey suffering from some security or economic problems in recent years.
In the first nine months of 2017, the revenue generated by tourism amounted to €8.7bn ($10bn), up 10 percent from the same period the previous year, according to data from the Croatian National Bank. Meanwhile, the wholesale and retail trade, transport, accommodation and food services industries provided 22.5 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016, making them the most important segments of Croatia’s economy.
Tourism is a fickle friend, though. A recent report by the European Commission, titled Croatia’s Tourism Industry: Beyond the Sun and Sea, warned that excessive reliance on the current tourism model could be unsustainable: “Currently, Croatia appears far from saturation point, but risks should not be underestimated… In the long run, all tourism destinations are exposed to risks of stagnation and even decline.”
Greece in particular has proven that a dependence on tourism is not good for sustainable economic growth, Mervar said. “Foremost, because tourism is extremely sensitive to events that policymakers do not have under their control,” she said, referring to events such as terrorism or natural disasters, which can “substantially [and] negatively affect the number of tourist visits”.
Tourism bites back
The flood of tourists, especially from cruise ships in Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town, is causing the city to fall victim to its own success. UNESCO awarded the Old City World Heritage status in 1979. However, in 2016, the World Heritage Committee identified overcrowding and visitor management as a problem that the city must address.
In 2017, arrivals rose 13 percent compared with the previous year, reaching 18.5 million, according to data provided by Croatia’s eVisitor system. Dubrovnik was also one of the country’s top destinations last year in terms of overnight stays, with 102 million recorded, up 12 percent from 2016.
The Dubrovnik Port Authority expected nearly a third of the city’s visitors to come from cruise ships in 2017, after almost 800,000 people arrived in the city from 539 cruises in 2016.
UNESCO advised that no more than 8,000 people should be within the walls of the Old Town at one time to prevent damage to the buildings. Mato Franković, the city’s current mayor, has gone even further, however, telling The Telegraph he plans to limit the number of visitors to the ancient city to 4,000 in the next two years.
Franković conceded that the city would lose money in the short term – about €1m ($1.17m), he estimated – but said “in the future, we will gain much more”.
“I am not here to make people happy, but to make the quality of life [in Dubrovnik] better,” Franković said. “Some of the cruise lines will disagree with what I’m saying, but my main goal is to ensure quality for tourists and I cannot do it by the keeping the situation as it is.”
The flood of tourists, especially from cruise ships in Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town, is causing the city to fall victim to its own success
Dubrovnik is doing well to recognise and address the issue of overcrowding, Peter DeBrine, Senior Project Officer at UNESCO, told Business Destinations. With cruise ship tourism, there are obvious ways to better manage tourist flows by working with cruise companies to adjust the timings of arrivals.
But despite the mayor’s work, the Dubrovnik Visitors website, which provides a live count of how many visitors are inside the Old City’s walls, still shows that the site often exceeds 8,000 people at the busiest times of day.
“It’s always going to be difficult for a public authority to say: ‘No, you can’t come to this World Heritage Site’,” DeBrine said. “It’s always going to come down to how you manage those numbers, and it’s because so many people are travelling now. World Heritage is a brand that people recognise. In that sense, it’s been a success, because it’s indicating that these places are special.”
Overcrowding is becoming a universal problem at must-see sites. According to DeBrine: “It’s just a fact – people are travelling. So yes, there [are] increased visitor numbers in these sites, and the sites aren’t getting any bigger, so it’s constrained.”
UNESCO is pushing for better visitor management, DeBrine said: “We’re all about encouraging sites to develop plans and strategies for tourism and to understand the trends for tourism so they can better plan and manage those flows.” In the future, he hopes travellers will book tickets to the World Heritage Site they plan to visit before even buying their plane tickets. “That’s the future where we’re better managing [visitor flow].”
A model of success
One well-known example of screen tourism is New Zealand, which consciously transformed into Middle-earth following the success of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. According to its tourism board, one in five travellers visiting the island nation said the films influenced their decision. In 2014 alone, films produced in New Zealand generated $3.2bn in revenue.
Tourism New Zealand works alongside the New Zealand Film Commission and Film New Zealand to capitalise on opportunities generated by films made in the country by converting international attention into travel.
The tourism board has worked tirelessly to market New Zealand as the home of Middle-earth for the past 15 years. A study by New Zealand’s Institute of Economic Research, titled Impact of Tourism Marketing Quantified, found that this marketing had a “significant and quantifiable” impact on growth in visitor arrivals from western markets.
New Zealand has also proposed a new way to capitalise on screen tourism: a tourist tax. Upon entering the country in 2019, visitors will pay NZD 35 ($24) to ensure they “contribute to the infrastructure they use and help protect the natural environment they enjoy”, according to the government.
Thankfully for New Zealand, the writer, director and producer Peter Jackson is not one to shy away from a cash cow. After stretching The Hobbit – an approximately 300-page book – into three long films, Amazon is now creating a new The Lord of the Rings TV series, which could possibly also be filmed in New Zealand. The spin-off is expected to become the most expensive series ever made, with costs likely to exceed $1bn.
Game of Thrones’ Martin is similarly minded. This year, the door was opened for HBO to produce five prequel shows to explore different time periods on the continent of Westeros following the premiere of Game of Thrones’ final season. The project is still shrouded in uncertainty, however, with reports saying there is no guarantee it will pan out.
To continue to boost tourism while avoiding overcrowding, Henry-Biabaud suggested Dubrovnik promote film tours outside of peak seasons. Croatia itself is also working to convince tourists to travel beyond Dubrovnik.
For instance, the city of Split, which houses Daenerys Targaryen’s throne room at Diocletian’s Palace, experienced a 120 percent rise in hotel searches in 2017, according to data from Hotels.com. Šibenik, the site of the city Braavos in Game of Thrones, saw a 60 percent increase in hotel searches.
As Croatia’s profile rises, more films are piling in. The 2018 film Robin Hood, which includes performances by Jamie Foxx, Jamie Dornan and Taron Egerton, was filmed around the country, while Star Wars: The Last Jedi transformed Dubrovnik into the casino planet Canto Bight. The sequel to Mamma Mia! was filmed on the Croatian island of Vis, and even the film Ibiza, which is set on the Spanish island of the same name, was actually filmed in Croatia.
Mervar also pointed to the South Korean reality TV show Romantic, which features young Koreans travelling around Croatia. This has had a “huge” impact on the popularity of Croatia in Asian markets, where it previously was not well known, she said. Korean restaurants are now even popping up in Zagreb.
Destinations, such as New Zealand, that form creative partnerships with film commissions will see the most success because they are creating overarching stories, Henry-Biabaud said. While it has made good progress so far, Croatia must take control of its narrative to continue to drive tourism in a way that works for the country.