The Fan’s Pilgrimage: Media Tourism

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Have you ever caught yourself watching a movie and wondering what it’d be like to walk in the shoes of the protagonist? Entertainment is all about escapism, and while we can’t all be Jedi knights or secret agents, it sometimes is possible to stand where your heroes stood. Enter Media Tourism – the conceptual combination of travel and media that allows the audience to participate with the world that was built by their favourite movies or television.

*Note: The following article has been written in conjunction with this week’s 1Up Culture Cast on the same topic. While you can enjoy the piece on its own, if you find the topic interesting I would recommend listening to the podcast for further in-depth discussion on the topic, as well as personal experiences.

Media Tourism can be appealing on several levels. For some audiences, it provides a cool photo op to show friends or a chance to see an awe-inspiring location you first saw on the big screen. A day of island hopping in Thailand might lead you to the beautiful Ko Phi Phi Le, the location of Danny Boyle’s ‘The Beach’. For others, the journey represents something of a pilgrimage, putting yourself in the shoes of a character you feel connected to.

Consider someone who grew upon the Harry Potter franchise and identified with either Harry, Ron or Hermoine. Making the journey to Alnwick Castle, which was used as the exterior for Hogwarts in the films, can be an emotional experience. After years of following these heroes around the school, Hogwarts Castle can become as familiar and as important to them as anything in the city they grew up in. It truly becomes a pilgrimage, the culmination of years of fandom leading to the very location that has been central to their media consumption.

In my home state of Tasmania, there is a similar media pilgrimage many fans take. It is rumoured that a small bakery in the township of Ross (which sits in between the two main cities of Launceston and Hobart) was the source of inspiration for the bakery that is central to the 1989 Miyazaki film Kiki’s Delivery Service. As this rumour grew, so did the tourists who went out of their way to stop at the small store.

Having visited the bakery, it is interesting to compare the site to other iconic media tourism destinations. Whereas many locations centred around film become tourist destinations because of the visual connection, from the outside the Ross Bakery looks nothing like the bakery in the anime. Inside, the connection is clearer, but when you visit the bakery you realise it’s about more than just a cool photo op for these travellers. It’s about an emotional connection that is tied between their journey, the anime and creator Miyazaki’s own journey.

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The bakery has a guest book for people to sign, and as you flick through the couple they have available you can begin to get an insight into the journey undertaken by some fans. Of the two I read through three quarters of the guest book had been signed by people travelling from Asia – sometimes writing in English, sometimes in their native language.

Unfortunately I can only read English, but those I could read often spoke of how much they loved Kiki and how special it was to find a source of inspiration. Others also spoke of how the Kiki story spoke to them personally. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Kiki’s Delivery Service spends a lot of time on the challenges of leaving home and finding oneself. Some of these travellers were living in Australia, either on a working holiday or on educational exchange, and they spoke of the difficulties they had faced. One example below, which is collected and translated in Craig Norris’ paper on the Ross Bakery and media tourism, provides a snippet into one fan’s mindset as they visited the bakery

I think my working holiday life is like Kiki’s life, because Kiki was looking for a place to live and work, and she was learning many things in a foreign place. Although I was fired from my job, my girlfriend broke up with me, and I’ve become homesick, I am so happy to stay at the bakery today. I want to say to my parents thank you very much for letting me go to Australia

That is just one example of many that can be found inside the guest books in Ross Bakery. These fans relate their challenges with those of Kiki, and the Ross Bakery served as an emotional connection point that reminded them of how Kiki herself managed to overcome and proper. Norris refers to this as a ‘transformative journey’, and this approach shapes how they interact with the bakery, separating them from the typical family stopping for a break on their journey from one end of the state to the other. The Ross Bakery guestbook often reads more like a communal journal as people open up about their lives in between praising the store’s vanilla slices and scallop pies.

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The owners of the Ross Bakery have recognised the value that media tourism can bring, and have fully embraced the idea. In the quieter moments they sometimes allow visitors to see the oven, (another part of the bakery that does bear some resemblance to the bakery in the movie), and they even have a room that you can rent out which is known as Kiki’s room, and spend a night connected to the bakery just like she did.

More and more, locations that are the subject of media tourism are making the most of the possibilities. In the water town of Xitang (near Shanghai in China), the area separates itself from other similar towns by advertising that it was the location of a scene in Mission Impossible 3. Pictures of Tom Cruise can be found by the waterfront next to historic buildings and old fashioned boat rides along the canal. With quite a few of these types of towns to visit on a trip to Shanghai, Xitang can sell itself on a unique level, offering something similar places like Zhujiajiao or Tongli can’t offer.

Perhaps the best example of media tourism is represented by Hobbiton in New Zealand. Built on a family farm in Waikato for the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbiton movie set was only meant to be a temporary construction that would be dismantled when it was no longer needed for filming. They soon realised people wanted to see the set for themselves, and in 2002 tours were put on for fans. The set was rebuilt for The Hobbit trilogy, and when it was rebuilt it was done so with the intention of the set serving as a long term tourist attraction, and is now considered one of the must-see destinations for a country that is already filled to the brim with tourism potential.

Media has a powerful effect on people, and being able to explore the worlds they create first hand can create further connections with that property. This can be through tracking down real locations like the Sex and the City tours in New York, or visiting sets that have remained standing for the express purpose of serving the fans, such as the Mos Eisley remains in Tunisia. For an outsider, going out of your way to visit these locations might seem crazy. But to the inner fan these locations carry far more weight than a simple landscape or photo, they represent a part of their own hearts and lives.

For further reading on Media Tourism and the Ross Bakery, below is a link to the Craig Norris paper mentioned in the article:

http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/470/403

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