Sherlock Holmes and Tourism in London

Sherlock tourists explore a London made "authentic" through the city's relationship to the iconic series. Source:
Michael Naim discusses the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes tourism in London. Naim argues that Sherlock tours stem from earlier forms of literary tourism, but the series’ multi-generational and multi-media expansions have created a more immersive form of media tourism.
Ed. note: This article is part of our bi-annual, peer-reviewed Student Voices section. Click here to read the introduction and the other articles in the section.

Many scholars have studied the effects movies and television have had on tourism.1Mijalce Gjorgievski and Melles Trpkova, Sinolicka, “Movie induced tourism: A new tourism phenomenon”, UTMS Journal of Economics 3, No. 1 (2012): 97-104. The spread and growth of media in the 21st century have created new ways to travel and changed pre-existing understandings of tourism. While the depiction of cities through movies and television developed side by side, the rapid spread and availability of media has drastic effects on tourism and created new ways for tourists to experience cities. As Mijalce Gjorgievski and Melles Trpkova explain, “Both film and tourism are basically industries that offer an opportunity to relive or experience, see and learn novelties through entertainment and pleasure.”2Gjorgievski and Trpkova, “Movie induced tourism”, 98. Due to the similarities between film and tourism, and interplay between them, scholars have started to try to understand how “tourists experience contemporary cities through their participation in fiction tours, and what meaning(s)… they attribute to their experiences.”3Nicky van Es and Stijn Reijnders, “Chasing Sleuths and Unravelling the Metropolis,” Annals of Tourism Research 57 (March 2016): 113–25.

The objective of this article is to explore the effects of movie and television media on tourism and to elicit a deeper understanding of the material consequences of TV tourism on how the destination is both branded and experienced in real life. To accomplish this goal, the article will focus on the example of the various media iterations of Sherlock Holmes and the images of London they have created for tourists. Many tourists left reviews on the Visit London website of Sherlock Holmes walking tours expressing that the tour took them to the lesser known parts of London, focused heavily on historical anecdotes, and brought the city to life. The series’ continuous, extended reach to individuals worldwide proposes the question: How does historic and contemporary media adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories affect the experiences Sherlockian tourists seek when visiting London? I argue tourism themed around the contemporary film and TV iterations of the Sherlock Holmes series demonstrates a transition from literary tourism, which was more limited, to a new form of media tourism that is more immersive. Sherlockian tourists experience London based on their preconceived expectations, especially from Sherlock, and though they might visit iconic London sites that are well-trafficked, their immersion in the Sherlock Holmes experience leads tourists to understand their experiences as unique and “authentic”. Sherlock Holmes tourism demonstrates the vast effects media tourism has had on the city of London and its citizens, as one representative example of the broader scheme of movie and television tourism and a shift from literary tourism to a newer form of media tourism.

London and Media Tourism

London has a long history of tourism and has been one of the world’s major tourist capitals. Stephen Page and M. Thea Sinclair record that “between 1970 and 1987 the number of overseas arrivals doubled, increasing from 4.5 to 9.3 million.”4Stephen Page and M. Thea Sinclair, “Tourism and Accommodation in London: Alternative Policies and the Docklands Experience,” Built Environment (1978-) 15, no. 2 (1989): 126. As they explain, “Prior to 1974 London had no official tourism plan” but “between 1969 and 1973, thirty-nine… hotels were built” in central and west London after the Development of Tourism Act (1969) was passed.5Page and Sinclair, “Tourism and Accommodation in London”, 128. However, this accommodation for tourism soon slowed due to lack of space in these areas of London and demand for space for local residents. The London Tourist Board (LTB) was established as “the main organization responsible for coordinating tourism policy”. It produced the “Tourism Strategy for London,” which aimed to expand the tourism sector.6Page & Sinclair, “Tourism and Accommodation in London”, 130.

London is a global media city and is represented across a vast array of media, particularly film. Since the early years of cinema, directors have been making movies about London set in different historical eras, whether shot on location or in studios.  It is arguably those media representations and images through which media consumers understand the world, particularly when it comes to tourism. As Chieko Iwashita notes, “In tourism, which is said to trade in images, expectations, dreams, and fantasies, those media representations and images of tourist destinations play a significant role in influencing people’s holiday decision-making process as the basis upon which tourists make choices about where to visit.”7Chieko Iwashita, “Media Representation of the UK as a Destination for Japanese Tourists: Popular Culture and Tourism,” Tourist Studies 6, no. 1 (2006): 59-60. Sherlock Holmes, a British detective character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, has stayed prominent and has been adapted many times in television, movies, and books. In fact, “Sherlock Holmes has been awarded a Guinness World Record for being the Most Portrayed Literary Human Character in Film and TV.” The marketability of Sherlock Holmes has greatly contributed to media tourism in London.

Media tourism is a relatively new concept. However, media tourists are part of “a longer tradition of literary tourism”.8Stijn Reijnders, Places of the Imagination: Media, Tourism, Culture (London: Routledge, 2016). This concept of literary tourism dates back centuries to the idea of “legend trips” related to oral folk tales, in which people would take trips to locations associated with ghost stories. As Iwashita observes, “Places where literary works were set, or writers were born or lived have always attracted literary pilgrims.”9Iwashita, “Media Representation of the UK”, 60. What is so interesting about Sherlock Holmes is that it was originally a literary series, and even before it had multi-media renditions, tourists were drawn to London to visit Sherlock Holmes’ famous home address — 221b Baker Street. The detective series captured the hearts of readers all over the globe and continues to gain popularity. Contrasting literary tourism with contemporary TV tourism, Rejinders notes that “in the nineteenth century, literary tourism was limited, with some notable exceptions, to a relative small group of lovers of literature… whereas each of the contemporary TV tours attracts thousands of tourists every year. Visiting ‘fictional’ locations from ‘low culture’ has grown into an important economic activity, with far-reaching consequences for the communities involved, the local inhabitants, and the tourists themselves.”10Reijnders, Places of the Imagination, 4. These contemporary media tours, combined with the depiction of the city itself on screen, provide a specific framework for how tourists will view a city.

The Sherlock Holmes Museum in London

The growth of Sherlockian tourism has created physical changes to London’s economy and affects people living in London in many different ways. “Britain’s tourism board has been promoting films for the past 15 years, so they know just how lucrative a movie like “Sherlock Homes” can be, reports CNN, and has even helped set up a museum at 221b Baker Street in London, along with creating a statue of Sherlock Holmes,  in order to capitalize on the fiction series and draw in more tourism. Right after Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009) came out, CNN reported that “about 70,000 visitors a year stop by the Victorian lodging house, though officials are expecting a spike of interest fueled by the new movie.” As Maitland and Newman note, “In some places in the contemporary city there is a clear complementarity between the demands of urban visitors and of workers and residents. Urban space, amenity and cultures are valued commodities for residents, workers and visitors alike.”11Robert Maitland and Peter Newman, “Developing Metropolitan Tourism on the Fringe of Central London,” International Journal of Tourism Research 6, no. 5 (September 2004): 341. This idea of shared space often creates tension between visitors and locals who both rely on urban space for different reasons. While many cities can suffer from the effects of overtourism, many experts believe London is one of the most capable of handling the increased volume of tourists expected to travel in the future. In their research debunking the myths of overtourism, Koens et al note, “The fact that the increase of visitors to a city puts more pressure on the local environment (e.g., waste and water management) was mentioned only by a limited number of interviewees. The issues that were mentioned relate mostly to local environmental issues that are already problematic.”12Ko Koens, Albert Postma, and Bernadett Papp, “Is Overtourism Overused? Understanding the Impact of Tourism in a City Context,” Sustainability 10, no. 12 (November 23, 2018): 4384. Since London has been a tourist destination and densely populated for many years, it has been able to adapt to the effects of tourism at a much faster rate than other cities that suffered from de-industrialization and have not been able to transfer quickly to a creative economic market like London has.

Beyond the effects of tourism on the city of London, Sherlock’s continuously extending reach to individuals worldwide proposes the question that is at the center of this article: How have the convergent historical and contemporary media representations of Sherlock Holmes influenced the experiences Sherlockian tourists seek when visiting London? The question I seek to answer here is not whether or not the tourist has an “authentic” experience, because it is impossible to define what an “authentic” experience is. A better question is: How do media tourism and tourists’ uses of digital media provide people with experiences that they see as authentic? It is to these questions I now turn. I suggest it is through the combination of the Sherlock media, along with other interactive fan experiences, that these tours show childhood and otherworldly fantasy stories, which come to life right in front of the tourist. This in turn builds a new layer on top of the other forms of media related to Sherlock Holmes that lend themselves to tourists’ sense of an “authentic” London.

“Authenticity” & the Sherlock Tour Experience

Due to the interconnectedness of the different layers of media that Sherlock Holmes has been depicted in—books, TV shows, films, digital media—tourists seek out tours for the television series or movies to see popular landmarks depicted on screen. This contributes to the idea of going on “a quest to find the presumed true nature of the city”13Van Es and Reijnders, “Chasing Sleuths and Unravelling the Metropolis,” 114. Through media, people can grasp a certain image of the city and then visit the locations seen on screen, or try to experience what the character was experiencing. David Clarke has argued that “place the city in the foreground,” as if to say the location of the film can often be more influential on the viewer than the actual plot or characters who simply exist within the story.14David B. Clarke, “Introduction: Previewing the Cinematic City,” in The Cinematic City, ed. David B. Clarke (London & New York: Routledge, 1997): 1. This theory could help explain why television or digital media tourists are so drawn to the cities that they see on screen. In a certain way, the viewer could be seen as experiencing the city alongside the portrayed characters, which is why they would want to actually visit those locations. Many researchers have sought to answer the questions as to why tourists seek out these experiences and specifically how “popular crime-detective fiction is able to facilitate a (more) meaningful experience of the present-day metropolis.”15Van Es and Reijnders, “Chasing Sleuths and Unravelling the Metropolis,” 114. However, little of this research considers the interconnectedness of this form of tourism with the other layers of media and fan interaction. In this section, I seek to fill in some of these gaps by looking at how tourists respond to Sherlock Holmes tours and the ways in which they express how these tours facilitate their “authentic” experiences of the city.

Many Sherlock Holmes tourists seek out the dark underbelly of London portrayed in the stories, and are often met with what they articulate as unparalleled experiences while visiting London. One tourist explained how “the alleyway was…where you felt that [you] could see Sherlock coming in and solving a crime and knocking a bad guy down and sniffing around, whereas the rest, it tended to be a little bit more busy, modern-looking places.”16Van Es and Reijnders, “Chasing Sleuths and Unravelling the Metropolis,” 120. As Nicky van Es and Stijn Reijnders argue, it is important to look at the city as a living breathing organism, which by doing so looks at all different aspects that make up the image of that city:

By focusing on how the city as an organism digests, or copes with the pathologies created by this ever-expanding body—i.e. crime, corruption, poverty—the participants aim to get closer to a presumed core identity of the city itself. This corresponds to how the city is imagined through reading popular crime-detective fiction, as all of the protagonists of the series under study are generally heralded for their extensive knowledge of the cities in which they operate, particularly because they have access to the generally hidden and obscured parts of the city.”17Van Es and Reijnders, “Chasing Sleuths and Unravelling the Metropolis,” 120.

This extensive knowledge of the city is not necessarily unique to Sherlock Holmes; however, it is something that is highlighted in every rendition of the series and seems to create meaning for London. As one review of a Sherlock Holmes tour noted, the tour “showed us not only the sites of Sherlock (both Basil and Benedict eras) but also the inner sites of London that you would not see on any other tour.” As this tourist and Sherlock Holmes fan suggests, the tour gave them insight into London that they would not get anywhere else, providing a kind of “real” or “authentic” experience of London that you would not get on any other kind of tour. Another Sherlock Holmes tourist noted, “Not only is this tour for Sherlock fans but also for anyone who want [sic] to see the living history of London.” This statement suggests that Sherlock Holmes tourists see the tour as providing the “real” history of London and that seeing this history through the lens of Sherlock is some how more “real” and more “living.” As these comments from Sherlock Holmes tourists imply, the stories create a pre-conceived notion of London that tourists are really trying to emulate through tours that highlight Victorian London and a sense of nostalgia for experiences and events that never actually happened or that only ever happened in the series. This nostalgic experience is embodied in Sherlock Holmes guided tours, where tourists travel through London and visit historical monuments that are relevant to the series.

Sherlock tours, such as the one offered by London Magic Tours, often include a historical element, where they invite tourists to see contemporary London through a nostalgic lens of the original Sherlock Holmes’ Victorian city

According to Christina Lee, Sherlockian tourists can be seen as undertaking a pilgrimage of sorts that sought to capture a ‘London’ that was meaningful” to them.18Christina Lee, “‘Welcome to London’: Spectral Spaces in Sherlock Holmes’s Metropolis,” Cultural Studies Review 20, no. 2 (August 7, 2014). While London has a much richer history and hosts many subcultures, these tourists are really after an experience that emulates what they see on screen. They are after “the feeling you get when you step out of an Italian or a Dutch gallery into the city that seems the very reflection of the painting you have just seen, as if the city had come out of the paintings and not the other way around.”19Clarke, “Introduction: Previewing the Cinematic City,” 1. This relates to the idea of experiencing the city first through media, and then through real world experiences. Through this type of tourism, people are experiencing London through the lens of Sherlock Holmes, so Sherlock brings meaning to London. Lee argues that “the multi mediated nature of Sherlock tourism has been facilitated by strategic alliances between media and tourism industries in the United Kingdom.”20Lee, “‘Welcome to London'”, 175. This unique Sherlock Holmes fandom has allowed for tourism to flourish due to those who want to go on guided tours, as well as touring agencies and media conglomerates who see the possibility of capitalizing on demand. This translates to not only the marketability of Sherlock Holmes, but also to the ability to commercialize popular culture. What has risen from this commodification of Sherlock Holmes is the increase in importance of locations in the literary adaptations as locations that appear on screen and do not actually hold any importance to the plot of the show or movies. As Lee explains, “while such locations may lack the cultural weight that comes with the appellation of ‘literary heritage’ or ‘literary classic’, they play a pivotal role in the tourist’s experience.”21Lee,”‘Welcome to London'”, 175. Most people see the film sets as landmarks similar to Big Ben or Westminster Abbey, so visiting the sets is no different than traveling to see one of those landmarks.

It is important to understand not only why tourists visit places, but also the “reflexive relationship between those who develop and present sites and those who visit and consume them.”22David Herbert, “Literary Places, Tourism and the Heritage Experience,” Annals of Tourism Research 28, no. 2 (January 2001): 313. While there are self-guided tours for Sherlock Holmes, most of the tourism infrastructure is developed by tourist organizations in London. This creates what some might see as an inauthentic experience of London. However, to those who visit the city purely for Sherlock Holmes and its collective landmarks, it is unlikely to be viewed in that way. The reason this ‘constructed’ form of London might not bother Sherlockian tourists is because “Fictional characters and events often generate the strongest imagery” and it is the “merging of the real and the imagined that gives such places a special meaning.”23Herbert, “Literary Places, Tourism and the Heritage Experience,” 314. Perhaps, the consumer is looking for an “authentic” Sherlock experience which involves so much more than just place and space, but, rather, it involves the interaction between people who also enjoy the show and the mysteries that may still exist within the modern city. This suggests that what are considered “authentic” and “inauthentic” experiences are not defined by anyone besides the person experiencing them. The expansive world that is Sherlock Holmes becomes accessible through tourism and seeing London as “authentic” as interpreted through the Sherlockian lens.

The idea of the “authentic Sherlock experience” can be better summed up by looking at a comparison between older forms of literary tourism and the newer form of digital media tourism. While the original Sherlock Holmes novels are set in Victorian London, a direct contrast with the global city that London is today, the location itself can recall memories from literary, television, or movie examples that create an “authentic” experience for the consumer. Lee notes that “the multi mediated nature of popular culture, overlapping fandoms, user generated content and pervasive culture of adaptations now mean it is increasingly difficult to contain categories such as ‘literary tourism’ or to fix a singular representation of Sherlock Holmes in a globalized context.”24Lee, “‘Welcome to London'”, 176. In other words, media today are so intertwined that it is hard to categorize Sherlock Holmes in the same way that literary tourism was in the past. While literary tourism was so focused on the author and their lives or the settings for their books, media tourism is connected to many other forms of media. Some tourists might see this form of tourism as an “authentic” experience because they can share it with many other people who share the same love for Sherlock Holmes and the mystery that used to exist in London. This sense of nostalgia for a Victorian London that they never experienced can actually generate real life experiences in modern day London that show deep rooted history. While Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, the effect the stories have had on London is tangible, which in a sense, makes them real history.


By looking at these different connections of media and tourism through the lens of Sherlock Holmes, it is evident that through events and storylines in the fiction series, real “authentic” experiences can be created. The desire for the “authentic” experience can be found through self-guided or guided tours of London that show the city through a framework that recognizes the Sherlock series on many different levels. This sense of authenticity is defined by tourists themselves. People are not looking to experience Victorian London exactly how it was; they want to be reminded of an event that occurred through media, which itself creates real world experiences. The Sherlock Holmes series of today, for example the recent Sherlock series on BBC TV (2010-2017), shows interesting contrasts between the sentimental aspects of Victorian London with the globalized, mediated lives that people live in the modern-day city as well as the new interconnectedness created by digital media. In Sherlock, media allow Sherlock to stay connected with people around the city, which contributes to a new image of London as a global city, but the series still shows him as a quirky detective who understands the underappreciated aspects of London that are often left out in other forms of tourism. Sherlockian tourism allows therefore people to experience London in ways that they define as “authentic” as seen through the lens of the multiple, convergent Sherlock texts produced over time. Sherlock Holmes fans get to live out memorable experiences and discuss them with other fans through forms of digital media, which enhances their media tourism. This shows a correlation between intertwined forms of media and traveling to experience the city in “real life.”


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