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(L to R) Than Truc as Anh, Le Thien as Ba Noi, and Scott Ly as Sinh on the set of "A Tourist's Guide to Love". (Photo by: Sasidis Sasisakulporn / Netflix via Facebook).

Film Tourism in Southeast Asia: Between Boon, Bane and Balance


Dorcas Gan investigates the opportunities and challenges arising from promoting film tourism in Southeast Asia.

Winding through the cities of Ha Giang, Hanoi, and Da Nang amongst others, Netflix’s travelogue “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” (ATGTL) brings the viewer through the stunning landscapes of Vietnam as the protagonists Amanda and Sinh meet each other and find love. Supported by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, the series is representative of the region’s renewed efforts to encourage film tourism.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the region has seen a significant drop in the number of tourists. According to Statista, in pre-pandemic 2019, 143.61 million tourists visited Southeast Asia, a figure which dwindled to 26.16 and 2.95 million in 2020 and 2021 respectively. While recovery in the past year has been steady – reaching 46.5 million in the first half of 2023 – ASEAN tourism still has a long way to recovery. Chinese tourists, who were the bulk of ASEAN’s pre-Covid crowd, have not returned in full force and are not forecast to rebound to previous levels until 2025, particularly as the Chinese economy experiences slow growth.

Given the importance of tourism to the region’s economy and the slow return of tourist flows, some regional governments have undertaken efforts to boost its recovery. Amongst them is film tourism – which includes special arrangements for individuals and foreign film production companies to woo them to film their productions in their country. These arrangements typically include increased subsidies for international media companies showcasing the landscapes, culture and heritage of a particular country. For instance, Thailand increased its cap on tax refunds on production costs for entertainment companies by twofold in March 2023, while Singapore announced a S$10 million dollar fund to support qualifying screen projects in April.

There are various reasons as to why this type of tourism is attractive to governments. The most obvious is the immediate boost in tourism and the creation of jobs for the local economy. In fieldwork conducted by scholars to examine how locals viewed the impacts of film tourism in 2014, interviewed locals in Indonesia’s Ubud, Bali for instance spoke of the perceived (and temporary) boost in their local economy with the filming of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” (EPL, 2010). Locals gained employment as members of the supporting cast and as helping hands during the film’s production, while coffee shops had a bump in sales due to the patronage of the film crew alongside domestic tourists who visited Ubud to witness a Hollywood production and see celebrities like Julia Roberts.

Singapore’s cityscape at dusk, showcasing the Marina Bay Sands. (Photo by MOLPIX via Shutterstock)

In the medium term, featuring local locations in films can serve as advertisements for local and regional heritage. This has the potential to stimulate film tourism, thereby creating a steady stream of tourism that can plug the gap between seasonal tourism. The premiere of Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), which was mainly set in Singapore and had an international cast, featured several of the city-state’s iconic locations and sites, including Orchard Road, Marina Bay Sands, and Raffles Hotel. Several government agencies assisted in the production and post-production for the film. The Singapore Film Commission (SFC), under the purview of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), awarded the movie a Production Assistance grant, while the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) worked with Warner Brothers for the film’s publicity.

The film was credited with a spike in searches for Singapore on travel sites like Kayak and Orbitz after it screened. STB said that the movie helped generate “destination awareness” for the city-state. Consequently, in 2018, Singapore’s hotel industry experienced its best occupancy rates in the past decade, which was partially attributed to the boost from the popular movie. Likewise, Vietnam’s National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) highlighted the significant impact of the popular ATGTL series in showcasing Vietnam’s breathtaking landscapes and vibrant culture, thus attracting tourists to visit Vietnam.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that several countries have offered additional incentives for projects that specially promote their country’s culture or landscapes. Thailand offers additional rebates for films that use “second-tier” locations, while Malaysia raised its Film In Malaysia Incentive (FIMI) through an extra five per cent cash rebate in 2022 for films that showcased local heritage and culture. Similarly, the Philippines extended an extra five per cent rebate for films that portray their countries’ cultural identities in 2023.

While film tourism can be economically viable, however, it can also be an environmental and social bane. Film companies can introduce changes to locations in ways that disrupt its ecological balance, while crowds brought about by the popularity of the film can lead to environmental degradation. This is exemplified in the case of Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands, among the main filming sites of Alex Garland’s “The Beach” (2000) featuring American film star Leonardo DiCaprio. The production of the film was embroiled in controversy when environmental activists alleged that the film crew had engaged in “environmental restructuring” by replacing indigenous plants with coconut trees to enhance the “tropical” aesthetic of the beach, thereby upsetting the local ecosystem.

A photo of Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands. (Photo by Dmitry Rukhlenko via Shutterstock)

Further fuelling the controversy was the claim that the production company, 20th Century Fox, had been allowed to replace the plants by the Thai Royal Forestry Department for a sum of four million baht and a “permanent damage deposit” of five million baht, alongside the guarantee of a tourism boost worth 300 million baht. The movie, which indeed launched Phi Phi as an international tourist hotspot in the days before social media, created an unstemmed rise in visitors that subsequently devastated the island’s reefs and wildlife.

The surge in tourism driven by the popularity of films and television or streaming series can also create various social issues. During longitudinal fieldwork on the Phi Phi Islands from 2005 to 2015 by academic Faye Taylor for instance, interviews with locals revealed that the development of a waste management system exclusively for touristic purposes could malfunction, creating unpleasant smells that could negatively affect locals. In Bali, Ubud experienced a boost in popularity as a spiritual getaway after its feature in EPL. Consequently, the influx of tourists caused congestion on motorways and in local spaces, encroaching upon the daily lives of local residents in part due to the inadequate infrastructure in place to address these challenges.

Certainly, since then, Southeast Asian governments have addressed these specific issues and promote some models of sustainable tourism. Thai authorities closed Phi Phi island in 2018 to facilitate environmental recovery. Phi Phi reopened to the public in 2022 after a significant recovery in its marine environment. After its reopening in 2022 there has been a cap on daily visitors to the beach within stipulated hours, alongside guidelines on which areas of the beach tourists can access, to maintain its fragile ecological balance.

Recently, governments in Indonesia and Thailand have responded to mass tourism by introducing tourist taxes. Starting February 2024, visitors have had to pay an additional US$10 tax to visit Bali, which will be channelled towards addressing the island’s notorious traffic congestion and waste disposal problems. A similar tax hike was passed by the Thai parliament but has yet to be implemented due to fears of its negative impact on the Thai economy.

While these efforts have been effective in ameliorating negative after-effects of film tourism, more preventive solutions exist. Government agencies can perhaps institute enforceable deterrents alongside attractive film tourism packages to ensure that film companies comply with environmental laws and are punished if they violate such agreements.

The region’s tourist authorities can also consider implementing pre-emptive plans to stem potential overtourism at significant film sites with environmental and social considerations. This would entail practices like limiting the number of daily visitors to reduce congestion and damage, demarcating areas limiting access or rotating access points, and providing infrastructure that promotes resource sharing such as public transport.

The above suggestions may indeed reduce the full boom effect of film tourism in the short-term. Regional governments need to urgently rethink how film tourism can be encouraged sustainably, before the crowds truly return in full force. After all, an approach that balances immediate economic boons with the health of the environmental and social fabric of place-communities can be more beneficial in the long-term.

Editor’s Note:
ASEANFocus+ articles are timely critical insight pieces published by the ASEAN Studies Centre.

Dorcas Gan is a Research Officer with the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She completed her MSc in International Relations (Research) at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2023.