In late April, A Tourist’s Guide to Love, a new romantic comedy from Asian-American director Steven Tsuchida, soared to the top of Netflix’s global English-language film chart. The film made the streaming platform’s top 10 in 89 countries, presenting a new face of Vietnam after decades of Hollywood’s obsession with the Vietnam War era.
From this perspective, A Tourist’s Guide to Love was groundbreaking. Shot entirely on location in Vietnam in early 2022, it portrayed the communist-run nation as a modern, attractive and desirable country.
Despite its authentic settings, however, A Tourist’s Guide to Love fits neatly into a familiar Hollywood format in which American women find happiness and – usually – love in an exotic foreign locale. “Eat Pray Love” (2010), the first global hit to exploit this version of female empowerment, starred American actress Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert, who takes a “gap year” to travel to Italy, India and the Indonesian island of Bali, where she finds love with another expatriate, played by Javier Bardem.
Tsuchida’s film follows a similar pattern, focusing on the transformative journey of a heartbroken American woman (travel executive Amanda, played by Rachael Leigh Cook) who joins a group tour to Vietnam to gain insight into the local tourism industry. She ends up putting her work aside to fall in love with her charismatic, free-spirited Vietnamese tour guide, Sinh (played by Scott Ly).
The problem with romances like Eat Pray Love is that they barely scratch the surface of real life in the places they are set. I remember sitting in a cinema in Italy in 2013, biting my nails as Roberts wrestled with the correct way to eat pasta, shiny Vespas and light-hearted machismo, all blended together to paint the most superficial picture of my home country. I later discovered that the film similarly misrepresented the yoga ashrams of Rishikesh, India, and the health-conscious culture of Ubud, Bali.
“Nevertheless, Eat Pray Love – and Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of the same name from which it was adapted – became essential pre-departure material for drifters and digital nomads around the world. In particular, the film’s portrayal of Bali as desirable, safe and carefree contributed to a mini-tourism boom on the Indonesian island, which was visited by more than 16 million tourists in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary end to most travel.
Hollywood blockbusters have had a similar impact in Southeast Asia before. “The Beach (2000), directed by Danny Boyle from a 1996 novel by Alex Garland and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, helped boost tourism to Thailand’s southern islands – particularly Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands of the Andaman Sea, where much of the film was shot.
Other foreign films, not always American, have also influenced people to visit Thailand’s more accessible destinations. In The Hangover Part II (2011), directed by Todd Phillips, Bangkok becomes the exotic backdrop to a group of Americans’ quest to save their friend’s wedding on the resort island of Phuket after a raucous bachelor party.
A year later, Xu Zheng’s slapstick Chinese comedy Lost in Thailand (2012) became the highest-grossing Chinese-language film in China’s history, encouraging many of its 39 million viewers to visit Thailand, which will host 11 million Chinese tourists in 2019.
The impact of these movie-inspired visitors has been important to the Thai economy, but not entirely positive. For example, the famous beach at Maya Bay had to be closed between 2018 and 2021 to recover from the effects of nearly two decades of mass tourism.
It is too early to judge the impact of Tsuchida’s film, although it seems to have avoided the fate of “Ticket to Paradise” (2022), another Hollywood romance set in Bali and starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney, which flopped despite its resemblance to “Eat Pray Love”.
Vietnamese media and tour operators are already offering tours to the film’s main locations. But problems are likely if “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” triggers another film-induced travel boom.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the hospitality sector employs tens of millions of people in Southeast Asia, including nearly 11 million in Indonesia, almost 8 million in the Philippines and about 7 million in Thailand. And according to German data provider Statista, tourism directly contributed to more than 9% of Vietnam’s gross domestic product in 2019. Finding the right balance for sustainable tourism is therefore crucial for the region’s economies.
But like American romances, it is time for the regional tourism industry to reinvent itself rather than repeat the mistakes of the past.