Tourism officials in Belgium are expecting a big year in 2008. Not because of an international sports event in Brussels or a museum opening in Antwerp. No — the Belgian ministry of tourism is giddy because this March, the film "In Bruges" will open in wide release. The action-comedy starring Colin Farrell is set in the quaint northwestern Belgian city of the same name. Never mind that Farrell spends much of the film belittling Bruges, a sleepy canal city northwest of Brussels. By highlighting the city's medieval churches and cobblestone streets, the film represents the kind of golden publicity that money simply cannot buy.
"The beauty and serenity of the city of Bruges will shine throughout the movie, which I like to think of as an Ambassador for Bruges," says Liliane Opsomer, deputy director of the Tourist Office for Flanders, Belgium, which has prepared 3,000 special tourist maps with shooting locations in Bruges. "We are very excited about the movie."
Opsomer has reason to be excited. According to the Annals of Tourism Research, when a location is featured in a successful film, the number of visitors rises by more than half over four years. The tourists who make travel plans based on their favorite films are known as "set jetters" — and their numbers are growing. From the thousands of baseball fans every year that make a pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, to the legions of fantasy buffs who take "Lord of the Rings"-themed tours of New Zealand, film-inspired travel is one of the biggest trends going.
Just as the number of set jetters grows with every Oscar season, so do the number of agencies courting them.
"When I started organizing film tours in 1999, there were only three companies doing it," says Georgette Blau, founder and president of On Location Tours. "Now there are more than 100 film-oriented travel and tour companies around the world." The rapid growth of the market led Blau to establish the Association of Tours for TV and Movies, which helps companies like hers reach the more than five million U.S. film fans who choose travel destinations as the result of seeing a movie or a television show. The group's motto is, "Film it, and they will come."
It isn't just private companies getting in on the act (pun intended). The U.S. Department of Commerce plans to spend more than $15 million on the "You've seen the film, now visit the set" campaign in Britain and Japan.
One "set" expected to see a spike in visitors this summer is the Stampede Trail in Alaska, featured in "Into the Wild", Sean Penn's film based on Jon Krakauer's famous book of the same name. "It's hard to quantify, but we expect to see a bump in tourism because of "Into The Wild," says Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. "Sean Penn really did a great job of capturing the state's beauty — its mountains, glaciers and streams-and we appreciate that he highlighted why people want to come here."
Less in need of film advertising is New York City, backdrop to some of the world's most famous films — from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to "Taxi Driver". But films are constantly making cities new in different ways, focusing on different neighborhoods and eras. Last year's "American Gangster", set partly in 1970s Harlem, could spark interest in that famous northern Manhattan neighborhood. However, film-tourists might find it hard to locate the Harlem of the film in the streets of Harlem today. The reality of New York may more closely resemble the New York of the screen when it comes to the forthcoming "Sex and the City" movie (for which numerous tours are already available).
Those who prefer independent film travel can buy Tony Reeves' Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, an omnibus guide to visiting the locations of everything from "The Sound of Music" to "Lawrence of Arabia". Reeves frequently updates his list between editions at movie-locations.com.
Where might set jetters be headed this year? We've listed some recent films with compelling sets you might want to consider. Pack your bags and — action!