BTS, Taylor Swift, Jackie Chan: Celebrities who became tourism ambassadors, using their star power to draw travellers

Chris Hemsworth (left) appeared in a Tourism Australia ad in 2018. Hemsworth is just one of many celebrities who lend their name and star power to tourism.

Buried beneath an onslaught of pandemic-related travel news, you may have missed reports that Mel B has been appointed tourism ambassador for Nevis.

The former Spice Girl’s father was born on the tiny Caribbean island, which neighbours St Kitts, and she visited as a child. The singer, actress and television personality, whose full name is Melanie Brown, says she intends to use her new role “to put Nevis on the map”.

Employing the services of a famous name to showcase travel-related services, products and destinations is nothing new.

Jackie Chan appeared in the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Live It, Love It campaign in the 2000s, American footballer OJ Simpson appeared in Hertz rent-a-car television ads in the 1970s and, beginning in 1984, a series of Australian Tourism Commission commercials featured Crocodile Dundee actor Paul Hogan, who offered to “slip an extra shrimp on the barbie [barbecue]”. (Australians say “prawn” rather than “shrimp” but the ads were targeting North American viewers.)

BTS are honorary tourism ambassadors for Seoul.

As the world emerges from the clutches of Covid-19 , we can expect a surge in celebrity endorsements as tourism offices scramble to sign up stars to front their campaigns. Research confirms the approach yields results.

A Harvard Business School study showed that household names have a significant impact on people’s holiday decisions. On average, sales increase by 4 per cent relative to competition.

Ambassador partnerships often last for years, although it goes without saying that the chosen luminary should have universal appeal, be deemed trustworthy and not act in any way that invites negative publicity (you won’t see OJ racing through airports to the Hertz desk any more).

Here are some more internationally renowned influencers who have helped to put the spotlight on sun-drenched holiday resorts, culture-rich cities and up-and-coming destinations by lending their name, image and general star power to the cause.

Chris Hemsworth moved his family back to Australia from Los Angeles in 2014, making him an ideal spokesman for the 2016 “There’s Nothing Like Australia” campaign. Two years later, the Avengers star appeared in a Tourism Australia ad that paid homage to the aforementioned Crocodile Dundee character.

Chris Hemsworth (left) appeared in a Tourism Australia ad in 2018. Hemsworth is just one of many celebrities who lend their name and star power to tourism.

Another Hollywood action man employed to raise the profile of a travel hotspot is Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2014, the Austrian-born former bodybuilder was awarded the role of honorary ambassador of tourism for Madrid, Spain. Arnie had fallen in love with the city while filming Conan the Barbarian way back in 1981, he said. A tenuous link, but one the folks at Turismo Madrid were more than happy to exploit.

Talking of the Spanish capital, Europe’s most successful football club, Real Madrid, struck a three-year deal to promote their home city in 2011. Star players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká and Sergio Ramos served as brand ambassadors while advertising hoardings at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium displayed the slogan Visit Spain, Visit Madrid.

Ronaldo was moonlighting, however, as his principal tourism ambassador role was for the tiny North Atlantic island of Madeira. The world’s most famous Portuguese since Vasco da Gama hails from Madeira’s capital, Funchal.

Football’s links with tourism can also be seen in the English Premier League. Arsenal have a lucrative sponsorship deal with Visit Rwanda (where?) and Leicester City have paired up with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Last season, match-day shirts bore the slogan “Thailand Smiles With You”.

Arsenal have had a lucrative sponsorship deal with Visit Rwanda since 2018. PHOTO: Instagram

But you don’t have to be a footballer to highlight the culture, beauty, history and hospitality of your homeland. Boxer and senator Manny Pacquiao has done his bit to raise the profile of the Philippines and veteran Australian golfer Greg Norman showcases sustainable golf course development in his role as tourism ambassador for Vietnam.

Staying in Southeast Asia, when Malaysians were polled to discover which home-grown celebrity they trusted the most, Jimmy Choo came out top. The tourism office acted quickly and, despite being based in London, the cobbler extraordinaire was a “shoo-in” for the position of tourism ambassador.

Tennis great Roger Federer has a similarly blemish-free reputation and has been installed as a brand ambassador for his native Switzerland. He promotes the pristine wonderland with travel tips, social media posts and video clips, including a humorous short film with actor Robert De Niro.

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Not all ambassadors are so clean cut. In 2019, Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho had his passport confiscated for unpaid taxes soon after being named as a tourism ambassador for his country of birth. Then, on a visit to neighbouring Paraguay, the World Cup winner was detained for five months after entering the country using a forged passport .

He was freed after agreeing to pay a US$90,000 fine – which was just as well, as he needed his passport because travelling overseas was part of the job description.

Some ambassadors don’t receive universal approval from the locals. The appointment of British supermodel Naomi Campbell as Kenya’s primary promoter wasn’t welcomed by all. There was a feeling in the East African nation that the position should have gone to someone who was born in the country.

Taylor Swift suffered a similar backlash after landing the role of New York’s global welcome ambassador for 2014-15. Some commentators pointed out the Pennsylvania native had been living in the city for only a few months. Others described the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter as too boring to represent the Big Apple. Ouch!

Taylor Swift suffered a backlash when she landed the role of New York’s global welcome ambassador for 2014-15. PHOTO: NYCGO

Staying with Manhattan and music, Chinese pianist Lang Lang was named New York’s first cultural tourism ambassador in 2016. The appointment was made with the aim of encouraging more of his compatriots to visit the city.

Last year, K-pop superstars BTS marked five years as honorary tourism ambassadors for Seoul despite the fact that none of the seven members actually hails from the South Korean capital.

A big name who was born in Seoul – specifically the (now famous) Gangnam district – is Psy . Despite being over­looked for the Seoul gig, the singer-songwriter became tourism ambassador for South Korea in 2013 and has promoted his country in a series of television commercials. He took over the role from saxophonist Kenny G, who was born 8,000km (5,000 miles) away, in Seattle.

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Let’s finish where we started, in the Caribbean. In 2018, Barbadian singer Rihanna added the rather grand job title “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary [a diplomatic agent invested with full power to transact business]” for her home country to a CV that includes actress, fashion designer and businesswoman.

Then there’s Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, the only living person of Caribbean descent as internationally recognisable as Rihanna. The sporting icon has appeared in a number of commercials for Jamaica tourism including “Jamaica’s so Breathtaking it Makes Usain Bolt Stop”.

You’ll note I used the words “living person” – reggae legend Bob Marley has been described as the “great posthumous cultural ambassador” of Jamaica, and could have been more influential than any of the above.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.