'Rain Or Cold, They Keep Coming': 'Game Of Thrones' Fans Tour Northern Ireland

Nov 14, 2019
Originally published on December 18, 2019 12:21 pm

Thelma Okocha had never thought about going to Northern Ireland. Yet here she was, standing on a rocky strap of mossy shore, in the rain. For her, this is hallowed ground.

"Euron Greyjoy almost killed Jaime Lannister here," says Okocha, a 29-year-old business intelligence developer who works in New York. Then she motions to a nearby cave where her tour group is huddled. "And that's where Melisandre gave birth to that demon shadow that killed Renly Baratheon," she says, "I can't believe I'm here."

By "here," she means Westeros, the fictional land where the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones was set. Much of it was filmed in Northern Ireland. The show ended months ago, but superfans like Okocha are reliving it year-round as "set-jetters" — tourists who travel the world visiting the places where their favorite movies and TV shows were filmed.

"While they are set-jetting, they also see so much more than the set," says Thierry Joliveau, a professor of geography and geomatics at Université Jean Monnet de Saint-Etienne in France, who has studied set-jetting. "When my wife and I took the kids on a Harry Potter tour of England, we noticed so many people also discovering famous cathedrals and Oxford University. They walked out of fiction and into real life."

Set-jetting is trendy these days "because so much of what we perceive these days is based on what we see on screens," says Peter Bolan, senior lecturer at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on screen tourism. "You see it everywhere."

A busload of tourists on a Sex and the City tour of New York City ride down Fifth Avenue in November 2013.
Stan Honda / AFP via Getty Images

There are tours of Sopranos and Sex and the City sites in New York, Lord of the Rings and Hobbit locales in New Zealand. Greek tourism got a boost from Mamma Mia, which was filmed on the island of Skopelos. Sound of Music buffs still come to Salzburg, Austria. Scotland even has an entire guide to set-jetting, which includes locales for the "Harry Potter" flicks, the James Bond movie Skyfall and TV shows like Downton Abbey.

But no show in recent memory has inspired the set-jetters like Game of Thrones, one of the most successful series in history. "These fans are possibly even more obsessed than the Star Wars crowd," says Bolan, estimating that 350,000 Game of Thrones fans are expected in Northern Ireland this year.

"That's hugely important to Northern Ireland economically, and it's particularly important at the current time because of looming things on the horizon like Brexit," he says. Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, is expecting a big economic hit if the UK's divorce from the European Union is finalized next year.

The show was also shot in Croatia, Iceland, Malta and Spain and not all locales are thrilled about the rush of set-jetters. In Dubrovnik, Croatia, local officials are trying to ban new restaurants in the old walled city (or King's Landing) to keep tourists from flooding it.

But Northern Ireland wants more. "Screen tourism has enabled Northern Ireland to almost reinvent itself, in a sense," Bolan says. "Before Game of Thrones, tourists wanted to see sites related to The Troubles." (That's the bloody sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants that ended in 1998 with the Good Friday peace agreement).

"That's what I knew about Northern Ireland," says Okocha, the set-jetter from New York. "That and the fact the Titanic was built here."

Thelma Okocha is a "set-jetter" from New York who traveled to Northern Ireland to see the locations where Game of Thrones was filmed.
Joanna Kakissis / NPR

Now Northern Ireland is also Westeros, a place where she could follow in the footsteps of her favorite Game of Thrones character, Arya Stark.

"She's fierce," Okocha says. "She didn't conform to what society thinks a woman should be like. She wanted to be tough. I love that."

She stands at the landing where Arya escaped a would-be assassin, then looks up to see the lush, craggy Irish coastline.

"Wow," she says. "Oh my God. It's stunning."

Along that coast is the fishing village of Ballintoy, where the local pub, The Fullerton Arms, is serving Arya Stark's favorite savory pies to a full house of set-jetters — including Okocha, a retired couple from Florida, Australian schoolteachers, an Indian management consultant and two sisters and their mom from Kuwait.

Manager Louise McMullan says Game of Thrones set-jetters have revitalized the entire northern coastline.

"It doesn't seem to stop," she says, referring to the tourist rush. "All year round, even in rain or cold, they keep coming."

Outside, set-jetters pose in front of a carved door depicting the dragon of the Targaryens. Tour guide Richard Hodgen snaps photos. "It really does fill my heart with pride that I get to see everybody here every day," he says.

Like many other Northern Irish, Hodgen was actually in Game of Thrones. He's tall, with a big bushy red beard, so he was the body double for the wilding Tormund Giantsbane, who chugged giants' milk.

This is such a relaxing beach. Almost makes you forget all the fake blood the Greyjoys spilled here. - Shannon Jansz

Later, he guides the set-jetters to a windswept beach that was a setting for the Iron Islands. They don the leathery vests and cloaks of the Greyjoys. They wield real swords.

Shannon Jansz, 24, and Trevor Felix, 25, primary school teachers from Melbourne, Australia, pretend to sword-fight before stopping to watch the waves lapping on shore.

"This is such a relaxing beach," Jansz says. "Almost makes you forget all the fake blood the Greyjoys spilled here."

Behind them, more tourists dressed as Greyjoys arrive, roaring as they run to the shore, this time swinging plastic swords.

Winter is coming. So are the set-jetters.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This next story is about set-jetters - not jetsetters. Set-jetters are people who travel the world, visiting the places that movies and TV shows are filmed. And because our experiences about the world are so rooted in what we see on screens, places that are seeking to reinvent themselves are taking note. In Northern Ireland, known for its history of sectarian violence, set-jetters are reviving the economy at a time when Brexit is threatening it. Joanna Kakissis has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN FALLING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's raining on the Irish coast, and that's a dramatic backdrop if you're reliving a swordfight...

(SOUNDBITE OF SWORDFIGHT AMBIENCE)

KAKISSIS: ...In one of the most successful television series ever, "Game Of Thrones." Thelma Okocho came from New York City to stand on the rocky shore where Jaime Lannister killed Euron Greyjoy. She chokes up.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

THELMA OKOCHO: I really love the show so much. And it's like, being here where they shot it, you're just like, wow. Like, oh, my God (laughter). Like, it's beautiful.

KAKISSIS: Okocho is on a "Game Of Thrones" tour, one of roughly 20 in Northern Ireland. Peter Bolan of Ulster University says around 350,000 "Game Of Thrones" tourists are expected this year. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on screen tourism.

PETER BOLAN: That's hugely important to Northern Ireland economically, and it's particularly important at the current time because of looming things on the horizon like Brexit.

KAKISSIS: It's also put Northern Ireland on the map for something other than The Troubles, the bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants that ended in 1998 with a peace agreement.

BOLAN: Screen tourism, particularly through "Game Of Thrones," has enabled Northern Ireland to almost reinvent itself, in a sense, in terms of how some potential tourists see Northern Ireland. And they have seen everything from the scenery and the landscape to the Northern Ireland people and their creativity and so on in a very different light.

KAKISSIS: Not all "Game Of Thrones" locales are thrilled about screen tourism. Dubrovnik in Croatia wants to ban new restaurants so set-jetters don't flood its old walled city. In the show, it's King's Landing. But Thelma Okocho feels very welcome in Northern Ireland, where she's following the footsteps of her favorite character.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

MAISIE WILLIAMS: (As Arya Stark) A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I am going home.

KAKISSIS: What did you like about her?

OKOCHO: She's fierce. She didn't conform to what society thinks a woman should be like. She wanted to be tough. I love that.

KAKISSIS: Okocho stared at the landing where Arya escaped a would-be assassin, then looked up at the lush, craggy Irish coastline.

OKOCHO: Wow.

KAKISSIS: Look at this.

OKOCHO: Oh, my God. It's stunning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Cheers, everybody.

KAKISSIS: Along that coast is the fishing village of Ballintoy...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hiya, folks.

KAKISSIS: ...Where the local pub, Fullerton Arms, is packed with set-jetters eating one of Arya Stark's favorite beef and ale pies. I flagged down manager Louise McMullan.

Has it been good for your business?

LOUISE MCMULLAN: Very good, yeah. It's been really good for the whole north coastline. Yeah, it doesn't seem to stop.

KAKISSIS: Outside the pub, the set-jetters pose in front of a carved door depicting the dragon of the Targaryens. Tour guide Richard Hodgen snaps photos.

RICHARD HODGEN: It is very good now to be known for positive things. It's great to see people coming here. Honestly, it really does fill my heart with pride that I get to see everybody here every day.

KAKISSIS: Hodgen was one of the many Northern Irish who also worked as extras and body doubles on "Game Of Thrones."

HODGEN: A lot of people felt the interest would go down, but it's actually increased. They're coming to see Westeros, which is all around us as we stand here.

KAKISSIS: A windswept beach soon fills with tourists wearing leather vests and wielding swords - real ones.

That's quite a sword you got.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Laughter).

KAKISSIS: Winter is coming, and so are the set-jetters.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Westeros or Northern Ireland. Take your pick.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "GAME OF THRONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.