Photo via Jim Sorbie
Photo via Jim Sorbie

One of the most interesting things about travel, I think, is how people decide where to go. Sometimes it’s obvious; a lifetime of movies, pictures, and (now) social media give everyone fairly consistent expectations of places like Paris and New York.

But what about lesser known places?

I’m thinking about this right now because I’m sitting in a hotel room in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a product of the American West, I never knew much about Michigan. Grand Rapids wasn’t even close to being on my radar. I never thought I’d visit.

What changed that, however, was almost certainly Grand Rapids’ viral music video set to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

The video came out in 2011, involved thousands of people, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. It was made in response to Grand Rapids’ inclusion on a list of “dying cities.”

When I first saw the video, I thought it was neat. I didn’t plan any sort of trip to Grand Rapids, or think I would ever visit, but I did walk away with an overall positive impression.

But now, four years later, here I am, and I think that has a lot to do with the video. That’s not to say I came because of the video — I didn’t particularly care about seeing the locations or the local celebrities it featured — but when I found myself with a few days to spare on a Michigan road trip, I had a positive enough impression of Grand Rapids to put it on the itinerary.

In other words, the connection between my decision to go to Grand Rapids and the video wasn’t quite subliminal, but it wasn’t exactly explicit either.

I suspect this happens a lot. The relationship between Iceland’s relatively recent tourism boom and its musicians might be another example; most international travelers probably aren’t Björk fanatics, but one of their few interactions with the country (or the interactions of their peers who told them about Iceland) was positive and a little exotic, so gradually it becomes a hot destination.

My own trip to Astoria earlier this year also probably had some of this going on. Before I went there I wasn’t even sure why I had heard of the small Oregon town (probably Goonies, but still), but I nevertheless had a positive impression from the get go, before I did any research.

Certainly there is more at play here in these cases. But the point is that experiences with often-fleeting media have a very real impact on how and where we travel, even if that impact isn’t felt until years down the road.

Related Reading: 6 Films that will inspire you to visit Paris

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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