Location tourism has existed since the era of silent film. But in the age of the global blockbuster and an interconnected world, it’s become more of a reason to travel than ever before. New Zealand has built an entire tourism industry off the back of the Lord of the Rings franchise, with millions visiting the country hoping to catch a glimpse of Middle-earth. Tens of thousands make the pilgrimage to Ireland and Croatia to see the locations of Game of Thrones. And in Asia, tourists are flocking to the streets of Singapore and the otherworldly mountains of China to relive key scenes from their favourite movies.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Tomb Raider (2001) saw aristocratic English adventurer Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) make the transition from video games to the big screen. Much of the action was set in the temple complex of Angkor Wat, which had never before been featured in a Hollywood film. The movie led to huge tourist interest in Angkor Wat – particularly in the photogenic Ta Prohm temple, famed for the vast tetrameles tree growing from its ruins. It’s been almost 20 years since the first Tomb Raider film, but Angkor Wat, and Ta Prohm specifically, still attract the crowds.
Maya Bay, Thailand
Much of Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000) was filmed on the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi Le, with ‘the beach’ itself located at the once secluded Maya Bay. The cult success of the film led to a wave of tourists rushing to the scenic location, leading to extreme overcrowding and environmental damage – particularly to the island’s coral reef. The Thai authorities decided to close down Maya Bay in 2018 as part of a programme to allow the area’s decimated coral to regrow. After it reopens in mid-2021, a ticketing system will limit the number of daily visitors to 1,200, compared to about 5,000 before its closure.
Kong: Skull Island
Trang An – Tam Coc, Vietnam
The stunning wetlands of Vietnam’s Ninh Binh province were a prominent feature of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, which transformed the peaks and rivers into the mythical home of oversized monsters and Kong himself. While the movie was a global hit, the scenic Trang An–Tam Coc area, which is less than 100 kilometres from Hanoi, has yet to experience the problem of overtourism that Maya Bay or Angkor Wat have seen.
Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians, the unexpected all-Asian box office hit of 2018, gave us a fictional portrayal of the lives of Singapore’s ultra-rich. Perhaps coincidentally, the city-state also saw record highs in tourist arrivals and spending, with China, Indonesia, India, Australia and Japan being the biggest sources of visitors. Various media outlets pointed to the success of the rom-com, which was set in Singapore, and the coverage of the historic Trump-Kim summit as the main reasons behind the bump. If you’re feeling inspired to pay a visit, we’ve spotlighted five stunning Crazy Rich Asian locations.
The Dark Knight
Hong Kong SAR
Some of the most famous scenes of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, arguably one of the greatest superhero films ever made, were shot in Hong Kong. Landmarks like the Central-Mid-Levels escalator (where Bruce Wayne snaps a couple of tourist pics) and IFC 2 tower (the building Batman jumps off, in full IMAX glory) both played starring roles in The Dark Knight. Check out our guide to more iconic Hong Kong movie locations.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China
Avatar (2009) was a box office phenomenon around the world, and is still one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Though the film was set on the fictional planet of Pandora, James Cameron based his creation’s awe-inspiring scenery on the natural quartz-sandstone peaks found in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, some 330 kilometres northwest of Changsha. Seeing the success of the film, the municipal government officially renamed the Southern Sky Column – a 1,080-metre pillar in the area – to ‘Avatar Hallelujah Mountain’. Since then, the site has become incredibly popular with domestic and international tourists alike – but it suffers from chronic overcrowding as a result.
Busan, South Korea
South Korea’s second city might have not been the obvious place to set a big-budget Marvel production, but Black Panther’s thrilling night-time car chase through the city-by-the-sea, which involved 150 cars and 700 people, put any doubts to bed. The film’s incredible US$1.35 billion worldwide box office gross, and its seismic impact on pop culture and beyond, ensure that tourists are still flocking to Busan’s Gwangan bridge, Jagalchi fish market and Gwangalli beach. Meanwhile, the Busan Film Commission says it’s received an increase in enquiries from Hollywood location scouts following the 2018 blockbuster’s release.
The Last Emperor
Forbidden City, Beijing, China
The late Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 historical epic, The Last Emperor, won nine Academy Awards and left a huge impact on China’s film and tourism industries. For this lavish biopic of Pu Yi – China’s final emperor – Bertolucci was given permission by the Chinese government to be the first Western production to shoot inside the Forbidden City. Queen Elizabeth II, who was visiting Beijing at same time, was denied entry during filming. The movie captures the grandeur and scale of the former Chinese imperial palace, inspiring travellers the world over to make the pilgrimage to see it for themselves.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Anji bamboo forest, China
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) won Ang Lee an Oscar and also revived the high-budget, high-concept wuxia martial arts genre, paving the way for films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and many more. Shot in several stunning locations across China, including the Gobi desert and the waterside Hongcun village near Huangshan, Crouching Tiger’s most famous scenes were shot in the vast bamboo forest of Anji, a 40-minute drive from Hangzhou. While the film was a boon for tourism, Anji’s bamboo forest has managed to maintain its serenity, and continues to attract hiking enthusiasts from China and elsewhere.
Lost in Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand
China’s highest-grossing film of 2012 is a slapstick comedy-cum-road movie with plenty of lazy Thai stereotypes. Nonetheless, Lost in Thailand triggered a boom that saw tourism from mainland China increase a staggering 93 per cent in the months following the film’s release. The film, directed by and starring Xu Zhen, has since turned into a franchise with two sequels: Lost in Hong Kong (2015) and Lost in Russia, which is set for a 2020 release. Moscow, watch out; China’s coming for you.