Get into the game and go to the GOT location sites ... before it’s too late
The Game of Thrones tourism craze has been a blessing and a curse for these filming spots around the world
It was recently announced that the release date for the last season of Game of Thrones (GOT) will be April 14 this year – sooner than we thought.
With the release will come reinvigorated obsession with the show. The series was in the news over December because of the ridiculous posters that Donald Trump had made and taken to meetings. The posters were based on the series and showed the president as a GOT character with the line: Sanctions are Coming.
With the new series we'll return to King’s Landing, Winterfell, Dorne, Highgarden, Westeros and Essos, and there’s bound to be renewed interest in the filming locations.
Few television series have had such a profound impact on tourism as HBO’s fantasy epic.
Since the show first aired in 2011 each of its key filming locations – such as Iceland, Northern Ireland and Croatia – have witnessed a sharp rise in arrivals, with the “Game of Thrones effect” said to be directly responsible.
Tourism bosses are no doubt delighted, but there’s a negative side to the trend. Dubrovnik, for example, better known to Game of Thrones fans as King’s Landing, has become an “overtourism” battleground, with locals complaining that their home has been turned into “Disneyland”.
“Fifteen years ago I was begging people to come to Dubrovnik,” one tour guide said. “Now I’m begging them to go somewhere else.”
So which destinations have been affected the most by the series, and which locations from season eight could find themselves oversubscribed?
About nine million people visited Croatia in 2010, the year before Game of Thrones began. In 2018, overseas arrivals reached 18.4 million, according to the country’s tourist board, an increase of more than 100% in eight years. Many of these travellers head to Dubrovnik, which has starred in the TV series since season two. It has proved both a blessing and a curse for the historic city.
Recent years have seen reports of bottlenecks and half-hour queues to enter the old town, forcing local authorities to consider a cap on daily visitors. Half of all tours offered in the city are now related to Game of Thrones, guides say, while research suggests that about half of new visitors to the city were inspired to go by the series.
A look at Google Trends shows that summer searches for Dubrovnik have grown steadily since 2011.
But look at more specific filming locations in and around Dubrovnik, such as the island of Lokrum, which appeared as the fictional city of Qarth, and sharper increases can be found.
Dubrovnik will make an (albeit fleeting) return in season eight, so expect another busy summer. A replica of the city’s domed Church of St Blaise was also built on the Game of Thrones set in Belfast in 2018. We’d wager viewers might see it get blown to pieces at some point.
Game of Thrones, combined with the high-profile eruption of Eyjafjallajökull nearly nine years ago, utterly transformed Iceland’s tourism industry. Visitor numbers grew from just 500,000 in 2010 to about 2.2 million in 2018 – an increase of 340%. No major destination (two million or more annual visitors) has seen a sharper rise in arrivals this decade, and Iceland now has about seven times more annual tourists than residents.
The boom helped save Iceland’s economy, which was on the brink during the global financial crisis, but, as with Croatia, locals fear the country is being “Disneyfied”, with Reykjavik’s main shopping street now packed with tourist shops flogging cuddly toys and cheap souvenirs.
Searches for “Iceland holiday” have soared since 2010.
To offer a little contrast, searches for trips to France have flatlined over the same period.
Searches to the specific sites that feature in Game of Thrones have also skyrocketed, such as Thingvellir National Park and Kirkjufell.
Tours of these filming locations are big business. A local guide, Jon Thor Benediktsson, says: “We were a tiny company when the show first came here – it has lifted us to new heights. Now around half of the tours we run are themed around the show.”
His most memorable guest? “We had a Japanese gentleman who genuinely believed he would see wildling people going about their daily lives. He wasn’t happy when we told him they only exist in the TV show.” At least he didn’t ask where the white walkers and dragons were hiding.
Iceland is expected to play a major role in season eight – look out for the black sand beaches at Vik and the Vatnajökull glacier – so Benediktsson can expect plenty more tourists come summer.
As home to the TV show’s HQ (Paint Hall Studios), as well as a host of photogenic filming locations, Northern Ireland has also benefited from a Game of Thrones boom – but without any significant concerns about “overtourism”.
Tourism NI’s annual review last summer reflected a record year, with almost five million overnight trips contributing nearly £1bn to the local economy.
Search for some of the most notable filming locations, such as Dark Hedges, which becomes the “King’s Road”, have seen remarkable growth.
The country will appear again in season eight, with Magheramorne Quarry, long-term home to Castle Black and The Wall (CGI required), tipped to be the setting for the show’s biggest battle yet, shot over 55 consecutive nights.
It is also thought that Tollymore Forest Park in County Down, one of the very first locations seen in Game of Thrones (it is where the Starks find their Direwolf pups), could make a return. Head there soon before everyone else.
Series six (which aired in 2016) saw Spanish locations begin to take a prominent role. The Alcazar of Seville was the perfect substitute for Sunspear, the capital of Dorne, and its Water Gardens, and the Andalusian city has indeed grown in popularity since. Overseas visitor numbers for 2017 were around 15% up on the previous year, while Google searches have also risen steadily.
Seville has, however, so far escaped the sort of overtourism problems seen in the Catalonian capital of Barcelona.
Searches for other Spanish filming sites, such as the beaches of Itzurun and the San Juan de Gaztelugatxe islet, both of which appeared in season seven, have also grown.
Season eight will see the return of at least one Spanish location: the Roman ruins of Italica, birthplace of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, a few kilometres to the north of Seville. It was closed to visitors for several weeks last May while scenes from the new series were shot.
This spectacular Scottish isle has not yet appeared in Game of Thrones. However, it is believed HBO is considering Skye for an upcoming Game of Thrones prequel, The Long Night. In 2018, The Herald claimed that location scouts had visited the island; shooting for the series is expected to start this year. Its report focused on the positive impact on tourism, but Skye is already facing problems with overcrowding. In 2017, local police warned people not to visit if they didn’t already have accommodation booked, and pictures often emerge of heavy traffic around the island’s most popular spots.
“In the last four years the number of tourists coming here has really, really boomed,” Henrik Micski, a Skye resident, said. “Even on a rainy day we’ll get around 1,000 people at the Fairy Pools [one of the island’s most popular attractions]. People who live in the closest village have to plan how they’re going to get to work. Sometimes fire trucks can’t get past.”
– © The Daily Telegraph