CONCH KEY, Fla. — The Overseas Highway that connects the Florida Keys is an unending blur of motels, marinas, fishing lodges, boat yards, tiki bars, souvenir shops, and RV parks.
But one has something the rest of them don’t: a reality TV star.
The Conch Key Fishing Lodge & Marina is co-owned by Erik James, who appeared as a “greenhorn” on the long-running Discovery Channel show “The Deadliest Catch.” And some customers come here just to meet him.
“It can be anything from a 60-year-old lady to a 10-year-old kid,” said James, who has a trademark tattoo of an anchor at the corner of one eye. “There’s so many people who follow it.”
Popular culture has always influenced where people go on vacation. But that impulse is becoming stronger, driven by a desire to escape reality with like-minded groupies, competition to take selfies in iconic pop-culture settings, and the global reach — now magnified by streaming services — of blockbuster franchises such as “Game of Thrones,”
“Destinations are realizing they can capitalize on this,” said Don White, who teaches hospitality marketing at Salem State University. “They see the same kinds of trends on social media, of fans following a TV show, a book, a movie. So they’re trying to focus their marketing on leveraging that popularity.”
The international online booking site GetYourGuide reports a tripling in sales of film- and TV-related tours in each of the past three years. The phenomenon has grown so big, the industry has come up with two names to describe it: location vacations, and “set-jetting.”
Boston-based startup kimkim, which connects travelers with local guides for custom trips, has seen a particular uptick in “Game of Throne” itineraries; in the final season of the series, Ireland and Scotland tour operator Brendan Vacations saw Web inquiries about its “Game of Thrones” tours grow eightfold. And so many people visit Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” was set, that not even Mrs. Patmore could cook for them all.
The luxury custom travel company Zicasso is often asked to arrange Instagram-worthy visits to “Game of Thrones” filming locations in Iceland, Malta, Morocco, and Spain, and “Lord of the Rings” tours of New Zealand, marketing manager Marci-Beth Maple said; a client whose wife had a terminal illness booked a private tea at Highclere Castle for the two of them, served by staff dressed in period costumes.
Harry Potter draws tourists to Scotland, where they wait for hours to see the Jacobite Steam Train — a.k.a. the Hogwarts Express — go by. Lines are out the doors at Musso & Frank Grill and El Coyote, both featured in the movie “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” There’s a “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” bus tour of New York. The Anantara Tozeur Resort, which opened in December in Tunisia, advertises itself as a gateway to the Sahara Desert setting that served as Tatooine in several Star Wars films.
“Crazy Rich Asians” has swelled tourism to Singapore. Prince fans make pilgrimages to his former home and studios near Minneapolis. Crowds wait to get into the ABBA Museum in Stockholm. Intrepid Travel even reports a 131 percent increase in sales of its trips to Chernobyl after the HBO series about that ill-fated place.
Entrepreneurs are capitalizing on this trend in new ways. The company fable & lark uses pop-culture references to get children interested in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and American Museum of Natural History, showing them art and objects similar to what they’ve read or seen in Harry Potter and on “Game of Thrones.”
“I started seeing Harry Potter-ish things [in the museums], and that sparked something,” founder and owner Evan Levy said. Now she finds adults coming along on her tours, sometimes carrying wands and wearing wizard robes.
Some places embrace their odd fame. Walla Walla, Wash., is planning its fourth annual Adam West Day, named for the native son who played Batman in the 1960s TV series. The town is also working on a statue of West, who died in 2017.
“It would be wonderful for us if we got to define our brand but the truth is we don’t. It’s defined by other people,” said Ron Williams, CEO of Visit Walla Walla.
Besides, said Williams, popular culture connections like this sometimes are “a reason to go to a place that also has other things to offer. ‘Hey I’ve heard about Walla Walla. It’s on the wine scene internationally. It gets great weather. I want to go there.’”
Not all destinations love the attention.
Allison Scola, owner of Experience Sicily, for instance, bristles when visitors seek out the settings of the myriad films about the Mafia. “I prefer to steer people toward other motivations,” such as enjoying the food, wine, and gelato, Scola said.
Sometimes the pushback is about more than pride of place. So many visitors mimicked Justin Bieber rolling around in protected areas in a video he recorded at Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon in Iceland, it had to be temporarily closed. Hallstatt, Austria, which resembles Arendelle in “Frozen,” has put a limit on the number of tour buses that can roll through. The Livraria Lello bookshop in Porto, Portugal, which inspired the library at Hogwarts, became so popular it now charges admission. And Monterey residents gripe about the Instagramming tourists drawn there by “Big Little Lies.”
“Being featured as a destination can be a massive boon to economic development,” said Ina Reichenberger, a tourism management lecturer at Victoria University in New Zealand who studies popular culture and tourism. “On the other hand, it also adds a lot of pressure.”
Not only can a film or movie increase business overnight and without warning, Reichenberger said; “you also don’t know how long you’re going to have that many visitors.”
In fact, pop culture turns out to have surprising staying power.
Mount Airy, N.C., hosts Mayberry Days to celebrate “The Andy Griffith Show,” which went off the air in 1968. Smithfield, N.C., has an Ava Gardner Museum and an annual Ava Gardner Festival. The National Comedy Center opened two years ago in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown N.Y.
Salish Lodge & Spa in Snoqualmie, Wash., still attracts fans of the 1990s cult classic “Twin Peaks,” in which it was cast as the Great Northern Hotel. Albuquerque continues to capitalize on “Breaking Bad,” with tours by bike (Biking Bad) or RV. People still ask to stay in the “Real World” suite at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, where the show was set in 2002, and book the “Scream” house on Airbnb or rent it for weddings. And Planet Hollywood is going strong with a new all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica stuffed with celebrity mementos.
Rubbing elbows with celebrities is a particularly big draw.
Private jet company XO’s Red Carpet Express invites high-net-worth consumers onto chartered flights alongside Hollywood-bound VIPs on Oscar Weekend, and retired NFL players headed for the Super Bowl. “They want to live vicariously through these people,” said XO’s chief commercial officer, Ron Silverman. “These are the type of things that most people can’t do in the real world.”
Back on decidedly less glamorous Conch Key, fishermen back their boats into tranquil waters of travel-brochure blue, past pelicans that primp on pilings. There’s a small sand beach with hammocks and a thatch-roofed open-air bar where patrons grab their own beers and throw money in a bucket on the honor system — often during the showings of “Deadliest Catch” episodes that happen once a week or so.
It’s a long way from the turbulent seas and frigid temperatures confronted by Alaska crabbers on the reality show, which also features James’s Chihuahua, Rico Suave.
But if it’s his unlikely fame that’s bringing people to the island, James said as he headed out to fish, that’s OK with him.
“I’m just trying to put the good vibes out there.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.