When the mayor of the small southern Spanish town of Osuna called Jesus Cansino to tell him Game of Thrones was coming to shoot part of season five, he wouldn’t believe it.
“She said, ‘They’re coming to film a series, I’m not sure you know it’. I started laughing,” says the 43-year-old town hall employee and long-time fan of the multi-award-winning series, sitting at a sun-drenched cafe.
But it was no lie. Princess Daenerys Targaryen, her dragons and crew descended on Osuna’s century-old bullfighting ring in October 2014 to film what is regarded as one of the season’s best scenes, and the town nestled deep in arid Andalusia has not looked back since.
With Cansino now in charge of promoting Osuna to “Thronies”, or fans of the series, visitor numbers have soared and foreigners are regularly seen wandering round the town of white-washed houses, monasteries and Roman ruins — once a draw mainly for Spaniards.
In the first 12 months after the shoot, the number of tourists to Osuna shot up 70%, and while it slowed down in the second year, it was still up 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 a draw for “set-jetters”, who visit destinations seen in films or series.
Review 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.
‘Have to work on it’
The influx in Osuna has yet to change the fortunes of an 18,000-strong, mainly agricultural town surrounded by olive groves with 22% unemployment.
But it has helped create jobs and put the town on the international tourist map — so much so that the local newsagent now stocks the Daily Mail, Bild and Le Monde newspapers.
“A few years ago, there was just one company that did guided tours, now we have two and two others are in the works,” says Diaz.
The tourism office is now staffed with four employees rather than just one, and authorities have opened previously closed buildings such as the 467-year-old university, taking advantage of the visitor influx 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, the bubbly 53 year old who runs the Casa Curro restaurant where actress Emilia Clarke celebrated her birthday during the shoot, has had to double her staff since then.
With a wall adorned with pictures of the series’ stars, she 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 piece of fruit are “small”, she explains.
The allure of Game of Thrones will not last forever, though, and 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 in.
“Many people think that when a film crew comes, money is going to fall from the sky,” says Cansino.
“But you have to work on it.”
‘Hollywood’ in Osuna
Plans are afoot to give visitors in the bullfighting ring a virtual reality headset with which they will fly through the air like a dragon, looking down on the natural sites around Osuna in the hope of getting them to visit those too.
Cansino is also planning a national competition of medieval combat in the very arena where Khaleesi was saved by her dragon.
And as Game of Thrones crew descend on other parts of Spain for season seven, several towns have called Osuna for advice, like Zumaia in the northern Basque Country.
The tiny seaside town known for its unusual rock formations had already been overwhelmed by visitors after a popular Spanish film was shot there, Diaz explains.
The prospect of Thronies descending on them had them positively “scared”, he adds.
Even well-established tourist destinations have reaped the benefits, such as Peniscola on Spain’s eastern shore — the scene of Daenerys Targaryen’s city of Meereen.
“‘Game of Thrones’ was a real gift for us,” says Laura Hidalgo, spokeswoman for the city hall.
“From July 2015 when the film shoot was announced up to now, there have been more than 5,000 news items in the international press,” she says — free publicity estimated to be worth more than $38 million.
Back in Osuna, meanwhile, residents like to recall the time when actors like Clarke, Peter Dinklage and “the good-looking one” — also known as Michiel Huisman — walked through the streets.
People would congregate outside their hotels like it was “Hollywood”, recalls one resident.
“It was great,” says Dolores Padilla-Cuervo, 64, walking down the street dressed in colourful, flowery trousers.
“And there’s much more atmosphere now, more people from outside town.”
But as for the series itself... not so much.
“It’s very violent, a lot of war — not for me.”
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