Last fall, the New Jersey Defamation League that’s driving much of recent cable television sent several of its members on a mission overseas. When “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” began a two-episode trip to sunny Punta Cana, its Soprano-manqué cast hit the Dominican Republic running—bringing airport personnel scurrying to remove Gucci-shaded, high-heeled housewife Jacqueline Laurita from the baggage carousel she had mounted to search for a loudly lamented “one missing luggage.” For the short trip to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana, the crew took a narco-cartel fleet of huge black SUV’s—their convoy abruptly halted when “Juicy” Joe Giudice interrupted a driver, saying, “Hey, amigo….I gotta take a pee-pee.”
Stepping into the tropic sun, the squat forty-something was soon joined by paisanos from other cars, who stood roadside giving the Caribbean nation a beer-fueled Jersey baptism that set the tone for the rest of their trip—which included a lawsuit-bringing brawl with other Hard Rock patrons.
How, then, did the show’s roughly 2.8 million viewers respond to this Bay of Pigs in Punta Cana? Not with “Ew” or “The humanity!” but, “OMG, I’m so going there for the holidays!”
Just after the Dominican Republic–set “Housewives” episodes aired, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana recorded a 300 percent spike in Web traffic. “We’re a massive hotel with 1,787 rooms,” says the hotel’s press representative, Kelli Schindelegger. “But with the exposure from the show, we sold out for New Year’s. People who watch “Housewives” are also attracted to the hotel lifestyle, so it was a huge appeal to that demographic.” It’s a demographic now changing the style and practice of American tourism around the world.
Fifty years ago, the media’s archetypal American abroad—say, a fedora-topped Jimmy Stewart squiring Doris Day through Marrakesh—inspired adventurous viewers to go and see Morocco for themselves. In this, they were much like the 19th-century English tourists who visited the sites of Brontë novels— distant precursors to the newer, stranger breed that scholars call “media tourists.” Instead of sweeping postwar cinema, these tourists grew up with a somewhat downgraded, TV-sized exotica: a tropic paradise whose new visitors arrived each week to send wee, white-suited Hervé Villachaize scurrying up a tower to ring a bell, crying, “De plane! De plane!” Thirty years later, this formative fantasy met the unmooring force of reality TV, whose “docusoaps” seduce viewers not only with foreign landscapes but, sometimes perversely, with the lifestyles reality- TV stars impose upon the world.
MTV’s The Real World began the paradigm shift just after its 1992 debut, setting each subsequent season in a new city announced in the title. But it wasn’t until Richard Hatch strode flabbily, hirsutely naked along Malaysia’s Pulau Tiga beach that media tourism truly exploded, with 2000’s reality-era-launching surprise smash hit, “Survivor.” Since then, producers have sought exotic backdrops for their shows and their sometimes-not-so-telegenic stars, though in the last few years, this hired scenery began grabbing the starring role. Sites in South Africa, Tahiti, New Zealand, and even New Guinea have reported huge surges in U.S. tourism after visits by reality-TV shows, some almost literally putting these destinations onto the map of America’s consciousness.
Cable television’s positive effect on Americans’ global literacy has been notable ever since the Travel Channel’s 2005 premiere of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” whose host’s gonzo style of cultural immersion has debunked negative stereotypes around the world while introducing viewers to everything from Singaporean street food to the delicacy of Namibian warthog rectum. Even the channel’s most sensational programs arguably have cultural merit. “Shows like ‘Got Home Alive’ may not make our viewers think, ‘Oh, let’s go to that country,’ ” Travel Channel president Laureen Ong acknowledges. “But they may educate them, teach them: ‘Here are things to avoid if we do go.’”
When it comes to educating viewers on behaviors to avoid, few shows can compete with the three episodes of “The Real Housewives of New York City” that were set in Morocco last spring. In one, socialite Sonja Morgan stood in an all-white designer ensemble before a senses-dazzling Marrakesh souk, and declared her core existential dilemma: “I’m torn between shopping and being secure.” The rest of the ladies ate, preyed, and shoved their way valiantly through like Elizabeth Gilbert’s evil siblings, their local impact graciously absorbed by a long-suffering (and, one hopes, well-compensated) guide, whose djellaba and dark shades revealed only a smile as enigmatic as the Sphinx.
Perhaps anticipating such scenes, Florence’s city officials used legal tactics to contain the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” when it arrived in the city last summer. Banning MTV from shooting at Boboli Gardens or the Uffizi Gallery averted the inevitable atrocity of the Situation’s abs-off with David, though it didn’t stop his fans’ pilgrimages to the pizza parlor where the Situation was said to work.
Whatever their educational value, the housewives and Jersey mooks do fill the screen with sound and color, which can’t be said of Brad Womack, the putative star of last year’s “The Bachelor,” which concluded in South Africa. The 39-year-old bluffly handsome bar owner actually seemed hard-pressed to occupy three dimensions. In the voice-over opening his South African adventure—spoken in the careful Texan cadences of a teen lineman on “Friday Night Lights”—Womack made it clear that as a travelographer, he’s no Paul Theroux: “South Africa is…amazingly beautiful. It’s a very vast land full of exotic animals. It’s really, really cool.” Later, on a safari, when a lion appropriately yawned at him, Womack deemed this, “Seriously, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
But in this case, South Africa spoke for itself. The days following the airing of “The Bachelor” were the busiest ever on the southafrica.net tourism website— surpassing even the two weeks of the World Cup, according to South African Tourism. The show’s climactic “rose ceremony,” in which Brad proposed to the final, lucky lady, took place at the Tinga Legends Lodge, on the Lion Sands Private Game Reserve. The South Africa tourism website offered “Bachelor”-themed packages, and within two weeks more than 200 people had booked trips to stay at Lion Sands, according Robert More, Tinga’s co-owner. While the figure may not sound significant, a package that costs thousands per person and requires a flight around the world operates on a different scale.
It seems that no recent reality-TV shows have motivated American travelers more than “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” which have consistently brought the largest spikes in U.S. tourism. “’The Bachelorette’ is practically a travelogue,” says Kim S. Marshall, publicist for the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort, whose occupancy jumped 55 percent after hosting the show in 2010. “There are cut-ins from the commercials to sweeping aerial views of the destination.” She reports that visitorship to Tahiti, which had flatlined for almost a decade, shot up 37 percent after the show. A year after hosting The Bachelorette, the Hilton Bora Bora Nui also welcomed the cast of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” which brings incomparable ancillary benefits in publicity. “If you host the Kardashians at your hotel, you know it’s going to be in Us Weekly and People every week,” Marshall says.
Yet reality TV’s amateur romantics may be a stronger brand than Kim and Kris, who went from their Bora-Bora idyll to a lavish wedding and a marriage that lasted less than half a TV season. “I’m not a big TV person,” says Adeline Regan, a 26-year-old Long Island accountant raised in the reality-TV age. Still, she hasn’t missed a season of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette in four years, the last of which was most fateful. “Before that, I didn’t really know” anything about the French Polynesian islands,” Regan says. “But seeing how beautiful it was and knowing the producers picked this location out of any struck me.”
Regan and her fiancé were engaged last August, will wed this August, and have placed a deposit for a honeymoon at the Hilton Bora Bora Nui. There, she’ll join the thousands of others like her: viewers who see a television landscape populated by people whose tans are fake, whose lives are scripted, and whose relationships end before the airdate— and who still fall in love and book their flights. “With the world today, I really need things that are positive in my life,” Regan says, to explain her viewing habits. “Sometimes, I just really need a love story.”
Travel and Leisure, 2012.