- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Graceland with President Bush last month and crooned an Elvis Presley tune for reporters, he officially became, however briefly, just another tourist.

In fact, he became a specific kind of tourist.

Each year in the United States and abroad, untold thousands make pilgrimages to places that bear some relation to popular culture — the birthplace of singers such as Mr. Presley, for example, or the locale of a hit TV show, such “Seinfeld” or, more recently, “Sex in the City,” both of which have inspired themed guided tours in Manhattan.

“People look for products, even if they don’t necessarily realize it, and [entertainment-related attractions] give them something concrete to say, ‘This is what I did,’” explains New York University tourism expert Hannah Messerli.

New York City so prizes its “Entertainment Capital of the World” status that, since 1966, it has maintained an agency within the mayor’s office to entice filmmakers, television producers and others to work in Gotham. Tax credits, police assistance and access to public property are among the inducements.

“Our local production industry employs 100,000 New Yorkers, contributes $5 billion to our economy on an annual basis and supports the city’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry,” says Katherine Oliver, commissioner of New York’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.

“People around the world know New York and want to visit our city after seeing it featured in a film, television show, commercial, music video or still photography project,” she says.

Of course, not every place is as large and photogenically rich as New York. Many sites are but dots on the American landscape. Yet even smallish destinations such as Asheville, N.C., birthplace of writer Thomas Wolfe, and Concord, Mass., associated with the authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, have bohemian cultural scenes or natural beauty to attract well-heeled visitors.

Still, says University of South Carolina tourism expert Richard Harrill, the economic potential of many towns and villages remains unexploited.

Mr. Harrill, who teaches a class on the continual allure of travel in film and literature, points to Milledgeville, Ga., where the writer Flannery O’Connor spent the majority of her life. “The house that she lived in was in deplorable condition,” he says. “I heard that some of her old manuscripts were scattered on the floor. Anybody could’ve broken in, and they would’ve wound up on EBay.”

“Only fairly recently,” Mr. Harrill adds, “have they started to preserve the house. It’s time communities get serious about their literary heritage.”

The King’s Memphis mansion is arguably the most famous entertainment-tourist destination, but the industry needn’t depend on bricks and mortar.

The stunning Middle Earth vistas of “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy ignited a 400 percent spike in travel to director Peter Jackson’s home country of New Zealand. The “Harry Potter” movies inspired tours of the United Kingdom, much as “The Sound of Music” became a permanent cultural advertisement for Salzburg, Austria (also, of course, Mozart’s birthplace).

Yet it doesn’t hurt when tourists can lock onto something tangibly specific.

Judy Sue Kempf is the president of the nonprofit organization Celebrating Patsy Cline Inc., and she’s raising money for a Patsy Cline Museum in the country singer’s Winchester, Va., hometown.

She sees the museum as crucial to preservation of Miss Cline’s legacy.

“With the museum, we’re going to tell the story of Patsy Cline from the early years on through her death,” she says. “For fans to be able to come in and touch and read and see what made her a star — that will be very important.”

It’s hard to know exactly how big or economically vibrant the entertainment-tourism industry is. Part of the problem, says Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America, is that such travel falls under the rather capacious category of “cultural heritage” tourism, which can include more edifying, school-field-trip-type destinations such as nationally designated historic landmarks and monuments.

In other words, it can include everything from Graceland to Gettysburg.

With that in mind, Ms. Keefe says, Americans took 216 million historical-cultural trips in 2003, the last year for which the TIA has data. The U.K. tour operator Thomson Holidays says that fully 80 percent of Britons make their foreign travel choices based on what they see on the silver screen.

Even if it overlaps with other segments of the tourism industry — who’s to say whether travelers visit Memphis more for Elvis, the Beale Street music scene or the National Civil Rights Museum? — it’s “definitely emerging with younger generations,” says NYU’s Ms. Messerli.

She offers the example of the burgeoning enterprise of hip-hop bus tours of Harlem, on which sightseers can peruse rap music’s formative landmarks as well as the Graffiti Hall of Fame.

“It’s a viable part of the industry,” she says, no matter if its attractions are of real historical value or merely trivial pop-culture curiosities. “The question comes back to: Does it make money or not? One would think that the Madame Tussaud’s wax museums around the world would lose their zip and popularity, as they are not especially serious” about whom they choose to immortalize.

“And yet,” Ms. Messerli continues, “they continue to command significant admission prices for all ages and ethnic backgrounds.”

In the end, the greatest asset entertainment-tourist destinations boast, besides whatever knowledge or amusement they may impart, is their very lack of portability — which is of particular importance to small-town America, from which textile and manufacturing plants have long since disappeared.

“You can’t pick up Milledgeville and put it in China or Mexico,” Mr. Harrill observes.

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