When in Rome, visitors might not necessarily do as the locals do, but many certainly follow the example of Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Roman Holiday” by sticking their hands in the “Mouth of Truth” near the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, or buying a gelato on the steps of Piazza di Spagna.

Many people will recall these scenes from the classic 1953 film, which is a prime example of how movies and TV programs can not only transport viewers to another world, but also inspire them to actually travel.

Take Dawn Smith, a 38-year-old American from Minneapolis, Minn., who got hooked on the popular American TV series “Sex and the City” this past summer.

“A friend of mine had told me, ‘You have to watch it. It’s so you!’ and so I did — all summer long,” said Smith, a high-school English teacher who is married with children. After renting her first DVD, she bought all of the series and watched every episode.

It wasn’t just the glamorous clothes and lifestyles of the series’ stars — four fabulous thirtysomething women living in New York — that attracted Smith. It was also the positive way the women were represented when dealing with relationships, money, sex and work, she said.

While planning to join her husband on a business trip to New York in October, she came across an ad on a Web banner promoting a “Sex and The City Tour.” She didn’t hesitate to sign up.

Visiting the Big Apple was a first for her, as was her visit to TV location sites. The bus tour, which usually attracts about 50 tourists (95 percent of them women), stopped off at about 40 spots featured in different “SATC” episodes. The ride was livened up by clips from the show as well as the guide’s behind-the-scene stories.

For three hours, Smith and her fellow tour participants lived the “SATC” life: They sampled “dreamy” cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery; checked out brand-clothing stores (as well as a sex-toy shop); and, of course, savored a Cosmopolitan at a chic bar.

Smith enjoyed it all and says it was a great introduction to the city. “I plan to go back on my break in December because I totally fell in love with New York,” she said.

Street scenes of N.Y.

The idea for this kind of tour occurred to Georgette Blau, On Location Tours president, in 1998. While walking down a New York street one day, she spotted a familiar building, which turned out to be a location site for “The Jeffersons,” one of her favorite sitcoms from the 1970s. “Then, I saw books on location sites and realized that there are so many in New York,” she said. When it comes to playing host to film and TV crews, New York state ranks second after California.

Blau launched her firm the following year with the “Manhattan TV and Movie Tour.” It now runs four tours, and is planning to expand its business to other popular film-location cities, such as Boston and San Francisco.

The “SATC” tour was added to the firm’s tour lineup in 2001, and is one of only two packages featuring a single program (the company also offers a tour for HBO TV series “The Sopranos”).

“Most shows have four or five locations in New York and aren’t enough for a tour, but with ‘SATC,’ there were 150 locations just by the end of the third season,” explained Blau during her recent visit to Tokyo.

The tour’s customers are not only Americans but also foreigners, including Japanese fans who have followed the series on WOWOW or DVDs. Even though the show’s final episode was aired in February, Blau estimates the total for “SATC” tour participants this year will reach 50,000.

Eye-opening experiences

In Japan, the South Korean series “Fuyu no Sonata (Winter Sonata)” has sparked a similar love affair among Japanese fans. Michiko Yukawa, a 53-year-old woman from Saitama Prefecture, wasn’t a big fan of TV dramas, but “Fuyusona” changed all that. Not only did she immerse herself in the world of this hit melodrama and become a hardcore fan of the series’ star Bae Yong Joon, or “Yon-sama,” but she also developed a strong interest in Korean culture.

“Until I watched the show, I was never interested in Korea,” she said. “I just thought they made cheap things and their streets were dirty. But the program surprised me with its good-looking actors and actresses, its beautiful scenery and stylish sophistication.”

In October last year, Yukawa and her friend joined a five-day “Fuyusona Location Tour” offered by one of the Japanese tourist agencies that have capitalized on the Fuyusona boom. The location sites they visited in Pusan, Chuncheon and Seoul were relatively ordinary places, such as a tree-lined road or a scenic lake or beach, but they were full of memories for fans. Yukawa says delicious Korean meals and brief encounters with locals also spiced up her first visit to Korea.

As soon as she returned to Japan, Yukawa became a SkyperfectTV! subscriber so she could satisfy her growing appetite for Korean TV dramas. “I look closely at other dramas and decide where I want to go or what I want to do next,” she said. Yukawa has already visited South Korea twice since her first visit.

Economic catalysts

Of course, location tours don’t only spring from the small screen. Name a recent box-office hit and there’s likely to be a complementary travel package. Loved the “The Lord of the Rings” series? Middle Earth adventures await you in New Zealand. If you’re entranced by the “Harry Potter” movies, head to Britain, the home of Hogwarts. Neither of these places exist in this world but plenty of location sites do.

The experiences of Smith and Yukawa illustrate the trend well: Successful entertainment acts as a powerful promotional catalyst. In turn, increased tourism stimulates local economies.

Taking advantage of this boom, Japanese travel agencies and airlines are offering new location-site tour options, or promoting their services in connection with notable movie settings.

But when it comes to promoting tours in Japan, it might be a matter of putting the cart before the horse.

In countries such as the United States and Britain, filming on location can be a fairly smooth process, since the entertainment industry is regarded as an important part of culture with potential economic benefits. Likewise, observers agree that the recent success of South Korean entertainment is partly thanks to an ongoing initiative by that country’s government to strengthen the domestic film and TV industries.

Japan, however, has a reputation of being a difficult place to shoot, despite the fact that it is a major entertainment consumer.

“The law doesn’t prohibit film shoots, but Japanese have not been very supportive, simply because they aren’t used to the idea and feel that film shoots can be an inconvenience,” said Tetsuji Maezawa, executive director of the Japan Film Commission Promotion Council. The production side has also been to blame, he added, as there have been cases when the location shoots actually caused problems, upsetting those who cooperated.

Shout it out loud

The situation, however, is gradually changing for the better in Japan, largely due to the mushrooming of film commissions — local organizations that help facilitate motion-picture locations. In the last five years alone, 72 film commissions have been established, and out of the 200 films produced in Japan annually, film commissions are now supporting nearly half of them, Maezawa said.

As a result of local municipalities and businesses encouraging film-commission activities, which promote their areas through movies and TV dramas and stimulate the community, successful examples of “location tourism” are starting to appear.

This year’s release “Sekai no Chushin de Ai wo Sakebu (Crying out Love, in the Center of the World),” a tear-jerker based on a best-selling novel, was supported by the local Kagawa Film Commission. As expected, fans of the movie have been flocking to the area on Shikoku to see the “Sekachu” location sites. In response, the film commission has made a map of the filming spots of “Sekachu,” as well as those of other movies that have been shot in the area.

Shinichi Fujisaki, who publishes Location Japan, a quarterly magazine in both Japanese and English, that introduces various location sites across the nation, believes film-commission activities can really help whole areas to establish a self-reliant economy, provided that they do it right with a long-term vision.

Having worked with many film commissions, Fujisaki believes that what they need most are many location shoots. “When a location crew comes to town, locals will realize that it’s not touristy areas but ordinary places that movies actually like to shoot, and they will learn many things about helping locations,” Fujisaki said. “And when they see the final product and feel good about the whole experience, that will have a positive impact and will also produce people who can appreciate and support the industry.”

In August, Fujisaki launched a four-day tour that invited Korean travel agencies to visit Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture to see location sites of movies and dramas, including “Cheung Yeon,” a soon-to-be-released Korean movie about the life of a Korean woman who became the first Korean female pilot during the country’s colonial period under Japan. The tour, which included visits to a local winery and hot springs, ended in Tokyo, with stops at Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli Museum in Mitaka City and the Odaiba Bay area, where “Odoru Dai Sosasen 2 (Bayside Shakedown 2)” was filmed.

The tour was a test run aimed at attracting Korean location tours as well as showing business opportunities to related industries in Japan. Whether such tours can succeed, though, depends on whether more locations shoots can be realized.

Fujisaki also noted that package tours don’t necessarily follow in the footsteps of every single production. “Regardless of whether it’s a movie or TV drama,” he said, “there has to be a really attractive story that people can immerse themselves in.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.