When the mayor of a small Spanish town Osuna called Jesus Cansino to say Game of Thrones was coming to shoot season five there, he wouldn’t believe it.“She said, “they’re coming to film a series, I’m not sure you know’ and I started laughing,” says the 43-year-old town hall employee and long-time fan of the HBO series.
But the mayor was not lying. Princess Daenerys Targaryen, her dragons and crew descended on Osuna’s old bullfighting ring in October 2014, to film what is regarded as one of the season’s best scenes. Since then, the town, nestled deep in arid Andalusia, has not looked back. With Cansino promoting Osuna to ‘Thronies’, visitor numbers have soared and foreigners are regularly seen wandering around the town of white-washed houses, monasteries and Roman ruins.
In the first year after the shoot, the number of tourists to Osuna shot up 70% and while it slowed down in the second year, it was still around 35%, says Tourism Councillor Rafael Diaz. This compares to a 10% to 15% rise in years prior to Game of Thrones, a series so popular that shooting locations in Spain, Malta, Croatia and Northern Ireland have become attractions for ‘set-jetters’ who visit destinations seen in films or series.
Travel site TripAdvisor analysed the number of people visiting pages dedicated to Game of Thrones locations between May 2013 and May 2015 and found that Osuna came top, with a 35% rise in interest, followed by Mdina in Malta.
The influx in Osuna has yet to change the fortunes of an 18,000-strong, mainly agricultural town surrounded by olive groves and 22% unemployment. But it has helped create jobs and put the town on the international map. “A few years ago, there was just one company that did guided tours and now we have two and two others are in the works,” says Diaz. The tourism office now has four employees, rather than just one and authorities have opened previously closed buildings such as the 467-year-old university to show off the rest of the town.
The local museum has also launched a permanent exhibition devoted to Game of Thrones, complete with photos of the shoot. And some restaurants and shops in town have capitalised on a series many in Osuna were once unfamiliar with.
Teresa Jimenez, a bubbly 53-year-old who runs the Casa Curro restaurant where actor Emilia Clarke celebrated her birthday during the shoot, has had to double her staff since. With a wall adorned with pictures of the series’ stars, Jimenez also has dishes named after the characters. ‘Gnomas’, for instance, is a grilled cinnamon apple named after Tyrion Lannister because both the character and the fruit are “small.”
The allure of Game of Thrones will not last forever, though. The town has to keep thinking up ways of attracting visitors in a bid to expand a tourism sector it hopes will bring more money. “Many people think when a film crew comes, money is going to fall from the sky,” says Cansino. “But you have to work for it.”
Plans are afoot to give visitors in the bullfighting ring a virtual reality headset with which they will fly like a dragon, looking down on the natural sites around Osuna. Cansino is also planning a national competition of medieval combat in the very arena where Khaleesi was saved by her dragon.
“Game of Thrones was a real gift for us,” says Laura Hidalgo, spokeswoman for the city hall. “From July 2015 to now, there have been more than 5,000 news items in the international press,” she says. The free publicity is estimated to be worth more than €35 million euros ($38 million).