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Game of Thrones tourism is wildly popular — and not just because the show is a hit

Fort Lovrijenac in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which doubles as the Red Keep on <em>Game of Thrones</em>. Dubrovnik is one of the oldest towns at the Adriatic Sea, and it is a popular destination for tourists.

Fans of the HBO series are flocking to Croatia, Iceland, and other countries where the show has filmed.

Beau Casey spent much of his three-day trip to Dubrovnik, a small city on Croatia’s Adriatic coast, taking in sights from Game of Thrones. He saw Fort Lovrijenac, a fortress outside the city walls that is better known to fans as the Red Keep, the palace that houses the Westerosi royal family. He walked the path of Cersei Lannister’s naked shame walk and saw the walls that, on the show, are patrolled by the Kingsguard. All these pivotal moments were filmed in the city’s Old Town, where an entire Game of Thrones-related cottage industry has popped up in the years since the show first started airing.

But despite being a big fan of the show, Casey wasn’t drawn to Dubrovnik because Game of Thrones had filmed there. He had initially booked the trip because of the city’s historic architecture — the fact that he got to see the Red Keep was a happy coincidence.

Thousands of Game of Thrones fans have flocked to the real-life locations that have served as a backdrop for the show’s fictional world, including Croatia, Iceland, Spain, and Northern Ireland. It should come as no surprise that the show’s superfans have flocked to the locations the show has used as sets over the past few years — so-called “set jetters” are superfans who book trips with the intention of getting a behind-the-scenes look at the making of their favorite show.

But Game of Thrones-influencedtourism is popular both among tourists who specifically seek out GOT-related experiences and those who simply find themselves vacationing in the very city where Ned Stark got his head cut off. The show also happens to have been shot in some of the most beautiful places on earth — the kind of interesting, otherworldly sites that don’t look out of place in a fantasy series, and that lure in visitors on their own gorgeous merits.

The result has been a tourism boom in all of these locations that, though not entirely driven by Game of Thrones, was certainly given a boost by the HBO hit. Game of Thrones’ final season may be airing this year, but it’s likely that fans will continue visitingits settings long after the series finale airs.

Some Game of Thrones tourists are “set-jetters” — others just want to go on a nice vacation

Dubrovnik’s sparkling sea and Baroque architecture make it a tourist hotspot in its own right, but among Game of Thrones fans, it’s arguably more popular because of its connection to King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros. It’s the backdrop to some of the show’s most pivotal scenes.

The Battle of the Blackwater in season two was filmed on the West Pier. The city’s walls also guard King’s Landing from invaders; the facade of the Ethnographic Museum is used as the entrance to Littlefinger’s brothel. Queen Cersei’s naked walk of shame in season 6 was filmed on Dubrovnik’s Jesuit Staircase. Dubrovnik was also the set for some of the show’s non-Westeros scenes: Most of the season one scenes that take place in Qarth were shot there.

Casey booked a walking tour through TripAdvisor that took him to several locations where the show had filmed, including Fort Lovrijenac, a fortress outside the city walls that is better known to fans as the Red Keep, home of the Iron Throne. The real fortress is much more squat and compact than its towering on-screen counterpart. It also isn’t red.

“The whole experience really showed me the lengths that went into producing the show,” Casey said. “Throughout the tour, the guide took us to locations where key moments of the show were filmed, referencing back with screenshots taken from the show. It was a surreal feeling, standing within and around fascinating historical structures which were also the forefront [of] a fictional universe that I’m so engrossed in.”

Fans who want a glimpse of life beyond the wall that divides Westeros from the terrifying ice zombies can go to Iceland. Josh Wieder and his girlfriend traveled there in 2017 and, like Casey, didn’t initially think of their trip as having anything to do with Game of Thrones. They didn’t book a tour, but they did end up at several locations that were used to film the show, including Thingvellir National Park, where one of Daenerys’s dragons torches a goat alive in season 4, and Kirkjufell, known on the show as Arrowhead Mountain.

“The wonderful thing about Iceland is that there’s something beautiful and interesting around every corner,” Wieder said, “so even driving aimlessly along the coast, which we did for hours and hours, proved immensely fulfilling.”

 Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Tourists walk through a stone rift in southern Iceland where a scene from Game of Thrones was shot.

Matthew Mckerroll went to Iceland this year with his wife, who has never seen the show. Like Wieder, Mckerroll didn’t go on a tour but still saw plenty of the sites where the show had shot. “Tours are honestly quite expensive, and it was much more fun to drive ourselves since we rented a car,” he said. “That said, the way we planned our days, we more or less went to the locations those tours would go to since GoT filmed in pretty much all the coolest locations in Iceland.”

“What’s really cool is that certain areas in Iceland are used for wildly different places in Westeros,” he added. “The scene where Arya and the Hound are entering the Vale and get the news that Lady Arryn is dead is very clearly filmed at Thingvellir. [So was] the scene where the wildlings meet up after climbing over the wall in preparation for raiding one of the northern towns that Olly lives in.”

Game of Thrones has boosted tourism in the countries where it shoots

But that’s not to say Game of Thrones has had no effect on tourism, or that it’s a coincidence that fans tend to vacation where the show is known to film.

Spain, where historical landmarks like the Castle of Zafra and the Amphitheater of Italica were transformed into the Tower of Joy and the dragon pit of King’s Landing, respectively, has gotten a tourism boost from the show. In 2014, the US ambassador to Spain claimed that HBO’s decision to shoot some season five scenes in the country had boosted local tourism by 15 percent — just two weeks into filming. In 2015, Dubrovnik’s mayor told Bloomberg that Game of Thrones had driven about half of the city’s 10 percent annual growth in tourism.

Northern Ireland, which has been the backdrop for everything from Winterfell to Dorne to the Dothraki grasslands, has arguably benefitted from Game of Thrones the most. In 2014, the Guardian reported that the show’s first four seasons brought a direct economic benefit of £82m (about $107 million) to Northern Ireland’s economy. (On top of tourism, that also included things like wages for cast members and extras and hotel stays for the show’s stars; a 2018 report found that the show contributes about £30 million, or $39 million, to the country’s tourism sector each year.)

Rob Dowling, the founder of the Belfast-based Game of Thrones Tours, is one of many local business owners that has benefitted from Game of Thrones. Dowling told me he got the tour idea in 2012 after speaking with a friend who worked as a photographer on the show’s first season. He discussed his plan with HBO, which let him use the name as long as he made it clear that the company wasn’t affiliated with the show in any way and didn’t use the logo.

Dowling now employs 10 tour guides, all but one of whom has been an extra on the show. At least one tour runs every day — 30 a week during the peak of tourist season in the summer, according to Dowling — and approximately 30,000 customers book tours each year.

But there’s been a dark side to the tourism boom. Dubrovnik has been so overwhelmed by tourists that UNESCO warned that the Old Town, a World Heritage site, can’t handle the number of people who flock to it every day. Last October, Dubrovnik’s mayor, Mato Franković, discussed the city’s tourism struggle on CNN. “We are very proud of our city. We are very proud of our tourism,” he said. “But we think that we actually need to take a bit of [a] break in releasing and slowing down the number of the tourists that are coming in the same time to Dubrovnik.”

 Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Four actors on horseback dressed in Game of Thrones-related costumes carry the Queen’s Baton as they make their way along the Dark Hedges in Antrim, Northern Ireland. The Dark Hedges near Stranocum in County Antrim featured as part of the Kingsroad in season two of Game of Thrones.

Franković noted that Game of Thrones isn’t solely to blame for the city’s overcrowding problem. “Some of them are coming because of Game of Thrones, of course, but mainly they’re coming because of the beauty that this city really has,” he said. “It is a really ancient city with a rich history.”

Game of Thrones superfans aren’t the city’s biggest problem. As CityLab pointed out in 2017, Dubrovnik has become the world’s second-leading cruise destination, after Venice. Cruise passengers tend to eat and sleep on the ships that brought them there — meaning they don’t benefit the city as much as tourists who stay in hotels and eat in local restaurants.

It’s unlikely that Game of Thrones-themed tourism will die down after the final season airs. Dowling’s tour company expects to get an even bigger boost from HBO’s upcoming Game of Thrones studio tour, which is set to open in Belfast in 2020 and will give fans access to set pieces and costumes from the show. There’s also a still-unnamed Game of Thrones prequel spinoff in the works, which means even more opportunities for fans to immerse themselves in the show’s universe. And then there’s the fact that some Game of Thrones locales, like Dubrovnik, are now being used as sets for other movies.

Admir Skenderi, a Game of Thrones superfan who visited Dubrovnik twice, told me he saw “workers building something Medieval-looking within the walls” on one of his trips. “I saw some people with bows and arrows and swords. My heart stopped for a moment. … You cannot imagine how sad I was when I found out it was the set for Robin Hood.”

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