Read the book, see the film, do the holiday

The unacknowledged star of 'The English Patient' is the Sahara desert. Jeremy Atiyah charts the well-trodden route from movie set to booming tourist mecca
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Indy Lifestyle Online
From the moment of its release last Friday, the film version of The English Patient is certain to produce one important spin-off among its British audiences. After viewers have dried their tears, thoughts will inevitably turn to the possibility of visiting the location itself.

Originally shot in Tuscany, Rome and the Tunisian Sahara, the film is a visual feast. But following in the honourable footsteps of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Bernardo Bertolucci's Sheltering Sky, both of which draw on the magnificence of the desert, it is the lethally colossal panoramas of the Sahara that linger in the memory.

Desert resorts will undoubtedly see a jump in tourism this year. The area around the oasis city of Tozeur in southern Tunisia, and particularly the small mountain town of Tamerza close to the border with Algeria, was the main location for the desert scenes of The English Patient. David Lean aficionados have already been visiting the towering cliff-faces of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan for years. Bertolucci fans on the other hand prefer the oasis towns of Morocco, with their red sand, palmeries and fabulous turreted kasbahs of mud.

The connection between cinema and tourism is well-established, with tourist boards in some cases falling over themselves to attract producers to shoot films in their area. Indeed the Tunisian tourist board, keen to cash in on the popularity of The English Patient, sponsored the UK premier of the film.

And with good reason. After Mel Gibson's Braveheart won the Oscar for best film last year, the whole area in and around Stirling in Scotland leapt to the forefront of world attention (even though the film had not actually been shot there, but in Ireland). "The number of visitors rose dramatically after the film," says Christine Brownlee of the Wallace Monument in Stirling. "Last year at Easter we had queues outside the monument for the first time ever. And the figures are still up." The contribution of Braveheart to the growth of tourism in Scotland compounded the success of Rob Roy, which had been a big hit the year before.

In fact there are numerous examples of cinema-enhanced tourist destinations in the UK. The image of a windswept Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant's Woman) has become one of Lyme Regis's biggest attractions; the Disney cartoon Pocahontas resulted in a sudden rush of visitors to Gravesend (which contains an obscure statue of the heroine); and Merchant Ivory have single-handedly added whole percentage points on to the total number of American visitors in the UK. Even Trainspotting may end up having a positive effect on Edinburgh's tourist image, despite hostility to the film from the city local authorities.

Films (or television programmes) that might just as well have been made by the local tourist authorities abroad include Out of Africa (Kenya), Jewel in the Crown (India), Ryan's Daughter (Dingle bay in the Republic of Ireland) and virtually anything made by Woody Allen (Manhattan).

The potential pay-off in increased tourism from an Oscar-winning film is clearly huge. Sadly, though, the oases of Tunisia where The English Patient was actually shot will not see as many of the anticipated new tourists as it perhaps deserves. Many of the desert-seekers - too many of them - are likely to end up in Egypt instead, where the film is supposed to be set (but where the scenery had been judged insufficiently authentic).

Egypt Flights to Cairo from pounds 230 plus pounds 20 tax throughout March and April; call ITC Travel 0181-514 5400

Tunisia Flights to Tunis for pounds 189 plus pounds 13.50 tax can be booked through Trailfinders (Tel: 0171-938 3939). For the add-on to Tozeur, reckon on about pounds 50.

Morocco Flights to Tangier for pounds 229 plus tax; call Flightbookers (0171- 757 2444).

Jordan Flights to Amman, until end October, for pounds 242 plus pounds 10 tax. Call Trailfinders on 0171-938 3939.

Dubai Flights on Swiss Air can be booked for pounds 299 (incl tax) to the end of April. Call Air Tickets Direct 0990 320321.