Posted by: cgratton | March 24, 2009

Pop Culture Travel: Friend or Foe?

Since its inception, film has undeniably been a key influence on our culture—our fashion, music, food, politics, slang, you name it.  But trends in the travel industry also reflect box office numbers. Restaurants become institutions after being featured in movies.  City tourism explodes after a film makes it famous.

Most recently, Angels and Demons, the prequel to the best-selling adult book of all time, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is filming in Rome. Since the release of the first blockbuster smash, there are six tours of the Vatican that are based on the movie!

But the pope isn’t exactly a happy camper. In June, the Vatican banned Angels and Demons from filming on its grounds or in any church in Rome.  This week, there are whispers that the Vatican may go further and boycott the film, and ask its devoted Catholic followers to do the same when the movie is released this summer.

Although the ban and possible boycott are due to the novel’s sacrilegious and offensive nature, the Vatican could also be trying to save its sacred grounds from being tampered with by the book’s loyal fans.

After The Da Vinci Code’s success, tourists visiting the movie’s sites in the UK and France sought to take their own souvenirs—chiseling off pieces of stonework, pocketing hymnals, etc.  The churches featured in the first film, like the Temple Church and Westminster Abbey, reported vandalism and theft after heavy visitation periods.

It’s nice that people are inspired enough by movies to travel and see the sites first-hand, but ruining their history is definitely a downside of a destination being in a film’s spotlight.

But sometimes shedding light on a place that is usually passed over can bring much-needed awareness to omitted issues. Like in the case of Slumdog Millionaire, the critically acclaimed Bollywood smash-hit, whose success recently boosted Mumbai’s “slum tourism” to staggering heights.

Exposing Westerners to the Slum World

Exposing Westerners to the "Slum World" is all the rage

Web-based trip-planning powerhouse, Expedia.com, even featured an Oscar holiday package, touting Mumbai and its neighboring slum city,  Dharavi, where the movie was filmed, as the hottest Oscar destinations this spring and summer. These tempting travel deals are further wooing fans to fly over and visit.

In a story reported by the Indo-Asian News Service, Arthur Hoffman, managing director of Expedia Asia Pacific, summed up the fascination. “Movies have a powerful ability to evoke a sense of the exotica about the locations in which they are filmed,” Hoffman said. “For travelers, the fascination of picturing scenes in the film and then comparing it to real life can lead to a strange sense of deja vu.”

Although “slum tours” are the hot ticket in travel right now, an ethical dilemma comes into play.  Are we putting these disparaged people on show for our own fascination? Or are we simply trying to expose ourselves to something uncomfortable to form a greater global understanding, and in the end, create a more “in-your-face” awareness to global poverty?  Is slum tourism, or “poorism” as they call it, enlightening tourism or voyeuristic exploitation?  My jury is still out on this one.

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