To hike New Zealand’s Tongariro Crossing, we had to wake up at 4 a.m. It was so dark when we started the ascent that we used our phones as flashlights until the morning rays broke through and we could see the path ahead of us. Patches of emerald green spotted the trail, along with the thin lines of a stream, snaking its way across the terrain.
Most of the other hikers we encountered were outfitted like us in traditional gear, but some were dressed in long robes.The entire way we heard clips of the same instrumental music blaring from the speakers of our fellow hiker’s phones. People seemed focused on the path ahead, marching with an intensity we hadn’t seen on any of our prior hikes.
When we finally inquired just what was going on, our fellow hikers explained that Tongariro Crossing was home to Mordor, the stronghold of the dark Lord Sauron. And from late 1999 to 2000, the two heroes Frodo and Sam made their journey through here as part of their quest.
“You know, from Lord of the Rings?” One of them said.
It turned out that we were hiking through a mecca for fans of the classic fantasy books that were adapted into movies in the early 2000s.
Tongariro was our only Lord of the Rings (LOTR)-related stop, but we ended up meeting countless tourists across New Zealand who’d come specifically to tour the motherland of their favorite epic fantasy. But the trend isn’t limited to just New Zealand or hobbit lovers. Whether their passion is a television show, film, book, or comic, fans are flocking to pop culture locales in a pattern akin to pilgrimages.
It seems that geeks (members of die-hard and obsessive fan subcultures) are done leaving their interests at home.
Fan conventions have existed since the 1930’s, offering a safe place for the truly dedicated to converse with others who share their same obsession. But thanks to the internet, the world has become even more interconnected and fans are craving a more immersive experience. There, in the actual location, their obsession can truly come alive. It’s less sightseeing and more a rite of passage. And it’s just one reason why over 1,000 die-hard LOTR fans make the Tongariro trek…every day.
Which is not to say that pop culture trips are a new phenomenon. Graceland, home of the late Elvis Presley is the second most visited home in America (the White House is number one) and has been for the nearly 35 years since Presley’s death. It draws an average of 600,000 visitors a year (with 20% coming from outside the United States). Visitors have also flocked to the Iowa cornfield in the 1989 film Field of Dreams for years and Salzburg Austria where The Sound of Music was filmed.
But as pop culture has expanded into longer series that span multiple years, loyal fan bases have followed suit. What used to be single films are now epic series that fans can follow for years — and even generations. Fantasy and Sci-Fi being the most common genre for a cult following (think: Star Trek and Doctor Who) but even comedies such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons have expanded their fan base because of the length of time the series ran.
A more recent example would be Breaking Bad. The mega-hit TV series wrapped up filming in September of 2013, but the spin-off Better Call Saul is keeping the drama alive. According to Frank Sandoval, who runs Breaking Bad RV Tours, guided jaunts through Albuquerque, New Mexico (where both shows are set and filmed) are a hit with tourists.“About 90% of our tours are people from out of town, out of the state, and out of the country,” he said. Not only do fans of both shows get to see show destinations, such as Walter White’s house, the car wash where he worked (and later bought to launder drug money), and ”Combo’s corner”, they get to do it in a replica RV exactly like the one on the show — outfitted with tour seats and a lab. And when there’s down time on the drive, the tour guides host a trivia contest with blue meth candy for the winners.
Even classic tourist destinations are using pop culture settings to capitalize on the visiting fan base. New York City is home to several of these tours. There are tours for Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Real Housewives of New York and The Sopranos — just to name a few. And it’s the show – not the city, that draws many of the visitors. “Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, and The Sopranos are seen in most countries,” says Alan Locher, Director of Public Relations from On Location Tours. “Many of our customers catch their first glimpse of NYC through these shows or any other show that features the Big Apple and for many it is what drives them to make the trip.”
While most of the stateside tours are shorter, half-day excursions, the epic pilgrimages are international. Take, for example, those who embark on the extensive (and expensive) trips that offer Game of Thrones fans a truly unforgettable experience. One travel agency offers a 10-day tour through Spain and Morocco. The trip goes through Seville and Osuna, where the fictional kingdom of Dorne and the slaver’s city of Meereen are filmed for a mere $4,699 per person. Another GoT tour takes place in Iceland. This five-day journey takes guests through the show’s locations, giving guests the chance to walk the land that Jon Snow, Ygritte, and the Free Folk cross to reach the Wall.
Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Downton Abbey have brought millions of visitors to the United Kingdom. But it’s not just the setting shooting locations for films and series that draw the crowds. Travel agencies are capitalizing on pop culture popularity and making their tours interactive. This makes the experience less of a traditional “tour” and more of a mission or adventure. A good example is what a 9-day tour that one agency bills as “The Da Vinci Trail” and which is based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Not only does it take tour-goers through all of the popular sites of the book (and film), but it also provides them with clues and riddles to solve, so they can truly give themselves a unique Da Vinci Code experience.
These long, interactive tours are certainly for die-hards who are willing (and able) to shell out the money for an intimate experience with their passion. But the effect of pop culture on the travel industry is not to be understated. Pop culture value can actually increase a destination’s tourism. While a niche market may be paying for the longer tours, the popularity of any given pop culture entity fuels the travel market. Take Skellig Michael, the island off the southwest coast of Ireland featured at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The formidable location (that was once the site of a sixth-century Christian monastery) was nearly impossible to get to prior to the film. But now, several tour groups offer fans a chance to visit the location. Ireland’s Office of Public Works even made several changes to the infrastructure of the island as well as permits for tour guides.
The draw to the locations seen in pop culture isn’t just an opportunity for others to capitalize on the location or the success of the pop culture entity. For many, the experiences are meaningful and even cathartic.
“It really is about the connections our customers have with the shows they watch,” says Locher from On Location Tours. “These tours give them the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their favorite TV and movie characters.”
I still remember the feeling from hiking in New Zealand — surrounded by thousands of LOTR fans who were following in the footsteps of their favorite characters. The air was clean, with sweeping green fields sprawled before us, and an ash-spewing volcano to our backs. Being here, this close to the heart of a story beloved by millions didn’t feel gimmicky at all. In fact, it felt like a shared human connection, a love and understanding for something bigger than all of us. Real life, in the middle of a pop culture obsession.
There was nothing fake about it.