Social media, popular culture and ‘soft heritage’: Chinese tourists in search of Harry Potter
Complex relationships exist between rationales for visiting, experiences and perceptions. Tourists are influenced by others, increasingly through social media as electronic word of mouth (ewom). While visitation rationales associated with popular culture are well documented, less understood is how social media use among specific cultural groups constructs and fuels new fictitious sites of popular cultural tourism, through what we call ‘soft heritage’. Particular physical qualities (often visual) endow places with a distinct but fabricated heritage value, linked especially to fictional characters in popular culture. Tourism numbers grow accordingly, as soft heritage sites become marked places for tourists of specific cultural backgrounds. This is illustrated through the case of the University of Sydney, which in the 2010s became a significant destination for Chinese tourists. Through mixed-methods research involving participant observation and interviews with 85 Chinese tourists, the rationales, experiences and perceptions of Chinese tourists were explored. Reasons for visiting included group tours, education, heritage and photography, but a key attraction was the ‘Harry Potter building’, a site not in JK Rowling’s books, nor involved in the making of the films, and not previously a tourist attraction. So much did social media and the Harry Potter Building influence tourism that the University became the most prominent of the city’s several ‘marked places’ (daka). The participatory character of Chinese social media, combined with architectural heritage and the enthusiasm of many younger Chinese tourists for Harry Potter, led them to create a new Chinese tourist site (or daka destination) without input from the management of the place itself.
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