When the HBO black comedy “The White Lotus” premiered in the summer of 2021, it took viewers to Hawaii’s sunny Maui. It was a perfectly timed pandemic escape full of intrigue, satire, sex and bloodshed.
The second season featured a mostly new cast — save for Jennifer Coolidge and her character’s quietly sinister husband, played by Jon Gries — and a new location, Taormina, on the rugged southern Italian island of Sicily.
Both seasons put the spotlight on so-called “screen tourism” — the growing tendency of travelers to flock to locations they see in television shows and movies.
U.S. Google searches about visiting Italy spiked nearly 20% between October — after the second season premiered — and December of 2022, according to the online research company Semrush.
Travel bookings by Americans to Italy nearly doubled during this time too, according to Jim Corridore, insights manager at the market research firm Similarweb.
Since the beautifully shot settings are as much a character as the cast, viewers are now clamoring to find out where the third season will be filmed.
A not-so-subtle hint
Many viewers caught a not-so-subtle hint in the final show, when Daphne (played by actress Meghann Fahy), toasting at dinner, said, “Next year, the Maldives.”
But we’re not so sure.
HBO has not announced where the next season will be set.
However, in October 2022, show creator Mike White implied it could be Asia, when he told the entertainment news website Deadline: “I think it’d be fun to maybe go to a whole different continent. You know, we did Europe — and maybe Asia, something crazy like that, that would be fun.”
A second theory
There’s so much excitement generated by the show — and its borderline fanatical fanbase — that any statement made by White is quickly pounced upon.
That’s what happened when he made a brief video message for writer Evan Katz Ross while purportedly on a beach in Thailand last month.
Ross posted the video to his Twitter account, which has some 1.5 million views. Cue the theories that “The White Lotus” is heading to the Southeast Asian nation known as “The Land of Smiles.”
The front-runner: Japan
But the smart money is on Japan — specifically, the historical former capital of Kyoto.
Like Maui and Taormina, Kyoto also has a Four Seasons hotel. The Zen-like five-star hotel is built around an ancient pond where a famed warlord lived during the 12th century.
The location plays into hints that spirituality will be the focus of season three too.
“The first season highlighted money, and then the second season is sex,” White told Deadline. “I think the third season will be a satirical and funny look at death and eastern religion and spirituality.”
He even let slip that “Jennifer [Coolidge] is my friend and everybody loved her in the first season, and I was like, ‘I can’t go to Italy without Jennifer.’ And maybe that’s still the case. Like, maybe you can’t go to Japan without Jennifer either.”
Indeed, in Japanese culture the lotus flower is revered for being able to emerge beautiful and pristine from dirty water, symbolizing enlightenment.
“Enlightened” is the name of another HBO series, created by Mike White, which ran for two seasons and starred Laura Dern.
We asked Four Seasons Kyoto whether plans to shoot there are indeed afoot — but representatives declined to comment.
If Kyoto is indeed the location, the hotel and city can expect a substantial uptick to its global profile once the show airs.
The impact of ‘screen tourism’
For the premiere and finale of both seasons of “The White Lotus,” the Four Seasons hotels in Maui and Taormina experienced some of their highest search traffic ever, said Marc Speichert, the chief commercial officer at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.
“In Maui, for example, during the first season, we experienced a 425% year-over-year increase in website visits and a 386% increase in availability checks,” he said.
San Domenico Palace Taormina, which has the iconic steep slopes of smoldering Mt. Etna as its backdrop, is closed for the season until mid-March, but then fully booked until May — so hopes of skipping down the corridors like Mia and Lucia will have to wait.
But other filming locations in Sicily have also become popular, such as Villa Tasca in the Sicilian capital city of Palermo.
The 16th-century estate, which has four bedrooms and 20 acres of gardens, is listed on Airbnb for around $6,000 per night.
Beyond “The White Lotus,” the broader trend of traveling to visit iconic TV and movie locations continues to grow.
Jon Gieselman, president of Expedia Brands, said, “We’re seeing a surge in trips to culture capitals and TV shows playing a role in tourism.”
It’s very much a global phenomenon too. When polled, two-thirds of global travelers have considered — and nearly 40% have booked — trips to destinations after seeing them in films or television, according to an Expedia report published in November 2022.