Ask any 5-year-old where she’d like to go on her summer holiday, and invariably the answer will be “Arendelle.” The mythical land of fjords, castles, and fun-loving reindeer captured in the Disney smash Frozen was inspired by Norway’s rugged landscape, and along with making box-office history, the animated feature is helping to break tourism records.
Searches for flights to Norway are up 153 percent, according to Flight Tracker. Hotel nights increased 37 percent in the first quarter of 2014 alone. The luxury travel agent network Virtuoso is reporting a 65 percent increase in bookings to Norway. And Disney’s 2015 Frozen-inspired maiden voyage out of the Scandinavian country is already almost sold out.
Frozen's "Arendelle." (Photo: Walt Disney Pictures)
This success is not by chance but by design. “Innovation Norway ran two TV commercials, together with the Fjord Norway region and the airline Norwegian, in strategically important San Francisco, Los Angeles, and greater New York-area markets,” says Hege Vibeke Barnes, director of the New York office for Innovation Norway, the country’s marketing arm. “We worked with Adventures by Disney to get their film and television commercial made, and we had joint travel agent seminars in five U.S. cities to bring awareness of how to sell Norway.”
Frozen's "Arendelle." (Photo: Walt Disney Pictures)
That said, even Vibeke Barnes herself is surprised by her country’s moment in the midnight sun. “We have never seen this phenomenon before. It’s a true first, and a lesson in what can work if you team up with a strong, well-respected, and world-renowned brand.”
The Frozen phenomenon is hardly new, though film and television’s ability to affect travel decisions is reaching something of a fever pitch these days. “When I started looking at this as an academic a decade or so ago, there was a lot of skepticism as to whether or not TV or film could influence and attract tourists — and people tended not to take me seriously,” says Simon Hudson, director of the Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development at the University of South Carolina.
Geiranger Fjord in Norway (Photo: Zdenek Svoboda/Flickr)
One of the problems, Hudson says, is that it is very difficult to measure impact. “The only reason the Bahamas are so proactive is that they witnessed an influx of tourists (mainly of young girls) many years ago after the filming of the Beatles movie Help!. And so they just knew instinctively that it worked. It is only recently that more destinations are realizing the potential.”
The Beatles on location in the Bahamas for "Help!" (Photo: Getty Images)
Data points, he says, were scarce back then; now countries and cities can track their reach through film and TV on various platforms. In 2012, Tourism Competitive Intelligence found that 40 million international tourists chose their destination primarily because they saw a film shot in that country.
Hudson also notes that, while a film like Jaws (1975) helped inspire trips to Martha’s Vineyard, the reach of a motion picture was relatively small a generation ago. “Jaws opened at 465 screens worldwide; Lord of the Rings (2004) opened to 10,000.” Add to that increased exposure through social media outlets and the fact that travelers are looking for “an experience” when they hit the road, and it makes sense that a transporting setting spied on a screen big or small would provide just the right inspiration to book a flight or cruise.
The "Jaws" bridge in Martha's Vineyard (Photo: Matt Cottam/Flickr)
Lord of the Rings is often cited as the film that changed the way media affect travel choices — one study suggested that New Zealand would have had to spend $41 million to get the same sort of attention through advertising as the trilogy provided — but in fact, the phenomenon has been around for so long, it even has master's programs devoted to its study and an official term: film tourism.
'Hobbiton' in New Zealand (Photo: Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr)
Hudson notes that even early Technicolor films inspired travel; County Mayo, Ireland, for one, saw an increase in American travelers after the release of The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, in 1952. Kevin Costner’s 1989 hit Field of Dreams brought tens of thousands of visitors to rural Iowa — and it continues to be a big draw. Each year, about 65,000 people visit the farmyard baseball diamond featured in the movie; to celebrate its recent anniversary, some 12,000 pilgrims descended upon the town of Dyersville in one day (Kevin Costner was one of them).
Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams" (Photo: Everett Collection)
“Various places have become iconic — going back to San Francisco, where the Hitchcock films were set — through their presence in a film,” says Motion Picture Association of America spokeswoman Anna Soellner. “It’s a way in which mass audiences often become familiar with destinations.
Then the movies become part of local folklore, the way the original King Kong and parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are associated with regions of Hawaii, which has benefited from that connection.” Some destinations, Soellner notes, are more aggressive in their marketing, which can pay off big time. “Norway really ran with Frozen. Northern Ireland has recently seized the day with Game of Thrones — no one knew it would be such a huge hit — and there has been all this residual benefit.”
"Game of Thrones" films in Northern Ireland (Photo: HBO)
GoT may even succeed in erasing from memory the dominant vision of Northern Ireland as a country of errant bombings and random terrorist attacks. Now it’s Westeros, home of iron thrones, dragons, and witchy red ladies. American tourism to the northern counties is so new, the tourism board doesn’t even yet have data. “We’ve seen a huge increase of interest in Northern Ireland and its connection to Game of Thrones, especially over the past year,” says Marie-Therese O’Neill, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s culture and creative vibe officer (seriously).
The dark hedges of Armoy from "Game of Thrones." (Photo: Horslips5/Flickr)
“When people see Game of Thrones on TV, they see a whole different side to Northern Ireland, and potentially the show motivates fans to want to come and experience first-hand our stunning scenery and landscapes.” She believes GoT can spearhead their “screen tourism sector” and “do for Northern Ireland what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand.” Queen Elizabeth even visited the real-life stand-in for Westeros just last week.
While places far and wide — from Morocco, thanks to href="https://www.yahoo.com/movies/film/casablanca" target="_blank">Casablanca (1942) to Miami, which saw a 150 percent increase in visitors from Germany during the Miami Vice era of the 1980s — have benefited from expanded exposure through long-form media, many experts attribute today’s Frozen phenomenon to the rise of social media. “Distribution companies can post behind-the-scenes images about how and where films are made,” notes Jenni Steele, film tourism manager at VisitScotland; the country has benefited from film exposure since Braveheart (1995) but has been deluged since the 2012 animated feature Brave.
"Brave." (Photo: Walt Disney)
“I think it was the first time Disney worked with a destination so closely,” says Steele. “We put together a document of all the locations shown in the movie, and Adventures by Disney created tours of Scotland, which have been hugely successful. Scottish tourism got behind Brave, and we had about 1,000 businesses who submitted some sort of Brave activity to our website, which shows the level of engagement.”
Visitors are certainly engaging: One study tallied that the thousands of extra visits to Scotland inspired by the film represent £120 million worth of business over the next five years. And that doesn’t even include the upcoming Starz series The Outlander, set in the Jacobean Highlands and spanning 16 episodes in August. “The following The Outlander has on social media is just amazing, so we’re excited to link back to locations and properties so people can see where these scenes took place,” adds Steele.
Eilean Donan Castle is one of Scotland's the most iconic castles (Photo: Extra Medium/Flickr)
Perhaps The Outlander will draw thousands. Perhaps not. Where will be the setting of the next Frozen-like feature that captures the imaginations of millions and gets them from the theater to the airport is anyone’s guess. But moviegoers can be assured that it’s coming. “I have been seeing this for a long time, but people now seem to have the money and desire to travel more,” says Cari Gray, owner of the high-end active-travel company Gray & Co. “From Anthony Bourdain to The Vikings, movies and television are huge motivators to escape.”
Heidi Mitchell is a freelance writer and editor based in New York, focusing on trends, travel, tastemakers, and health. Her work frequently appears in the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, the New York Post, and Travel + Leisure.