Travel romance films

These movies are described in detail in “Romance on the Road” in a chapter entitled “Portrayals.” The films are listed in reverse order of year of release. See also my list of women’s travel romance narratives.

Heading South

The most important contemporary look at female sex tourism, this 2006 film featured Charlotte Rampling as one of a trio of female sex tourists in Haiti in the 1970s.

“Heading South” shows a whole group of women — American, English and French Canadian — interested in no-strings relationships with Caribbean guys.

Whereas movies such as “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” might be taken as a movie about one American author’s accidental romance on holiday, “Heading South” makes it clear that this is a mass phenomenon and a response to dating wars and man shortages at home. Overall, the film is a tremendously accurate look at female sex tourism.

Given Haiti’s economic and health problems, “Heading South” may encourage women to visit, rather than Haiti itself, the neighboring Dominican Republic, with its underground reputation for having men, many who are Haitian emigres, who want to give visiting women an unforgettable sexual experience.

Both Heading South, the film, and Romance on the Road, the book, touch on the engines propelling female sex tourism:

  • Man shortages. In the movie, Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), aged 55, notes, “If you are over 40, and not as dumb as a fashion model, the only guys who are interested in you are natural-born losers or husbands whose wives are cheating on them.” Male shortages are real and especially acute for urban Western women, while male surpluses are common in the developing world. A plane ticket may cure loneliness for both parties.
  • The commodification of sex and sexual connoisseurship. In the film, Legba, the Haitian lover of two of the women, receives necklaces, meals and bus money from his girlfriends, and appears to genuinely like both of them in return. The women’s gifts procure them a youthful, virile young lover who would be off-limits to them back home.
  • Benefits to poor men. Legba is shown giving cash obtained as gifts from foreign girlfriends to his impoverished mother. In the real world, in the West African nation of the Gambia, young beach boys similarly pass their earnings from foreign girlfriends to their mothers, who protested when the government wanted to crack down on their sons’ activities.
  • Healing for the divorced or unhappily married woman. Brenda (played by Karen Young) enjoys her first orgasm at age 45 with a teen-aged Legba. And Sue, a visitor to Haiti (played by Louise Portal), is rejected by men at home in Montreal. But in the sweetest scene in the film, her lover Neptune, a fisherman, sells his catch of the day and then goes to a sleeping Sue, undressing, slipping into bed, and tenderly stroking her arm.
  • Identity loss. Sue notes, “Here, I feel like a butterfly, free, alive, unattached. I love Nepture. Elsewhere, it’d be laughable. But not here. Here it isn’t, because we all become different.” Women who lived sedate lives at home, ignored by male co-workers and friends, feel free to act differently far from home, when foreign men treat them as desirable and worth pampering.
Under the Tuscan Sun

Briefly significant byplay between Frances (Diane Lane), who impulsively buys a villa in Tuscany, and her Positano-based lover on stereotypes involving American women and Italian men, but this visually satisfying film is marred by truly incongruous profanity. Tuscan Sun will also puzzle readers of the book version, because the film borrowed a substantially unrelated plot from unacknowledged sources, including perhaps Marlena de Blasi’s wondrous book “A Thousand Days in Venice” and the far superior film “Bread and Tulips” about an Italian woman who strays to Venice, abandoning her unappreciative family.

Hideous Kinky

Bilal, a Moroccan acrobat, falls in love with the character played by Kate Winslet, and complications arise that will be familiar to some Western women travelers. A winning effort, with North Africa coming across as a place of wonder, whether seen through the eyes of a child (as occurs here) or an adult. Moments of sweet intimacy between Bilal and his lover.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back

Yuppie brand names and product placements almost take over some of the interior shots, but its flaws aside, this movie did the most to heighten consciousness that female romance tourism even exists, at least in North America.


Whit Stillman directs this stylish tale of an American businessman, Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols), living in Barcelona and looking for the girl of his dreams. He tells his visiting cousin, Fred (Christopher Eigeman):

The sexual revolution reached Spain much later than the U.S. … here in Barcelona everything was swept aside. … Spanish girls tend to be really promiscuous. I wasn’t using promiscuous pejoratively. It’s just a fact they have completely different attitude toward sex.

Barcelona touches on how the North American expatriate can enjoy greater sexual adventurousness in much of Europe.

The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea

Jeanne Moreau in an utterly intriguing look at how the older woman can engineer one last hurrah; set in the bright Caribbean, the target of her affection is Lambert, a young hunky blond Frenchman. Much witty dialogue, and Moreau shines.

The Lunatic

Rambunctious, winning, bawdy and comic mating of a heavyset German tourist named Inga and the winsome Aloysius, considered the village idiot of his corner of Jamaica but capable of some sturdy lovin’ when called upon. Deserves to be far better known!

The Lover

Marguerite Duras’s novel comes to film with the sultryness of steamy Viet Nam. The story is based on Duras’s real-life adolescent affair with an unattractive Chinese businessman’s son, which she pursued to help her dirt-poor expatriate family. The film makes him at least physically more appealing, as part of a lush and beautiful production.

Before Sunrise

The college quickie in Europe, distilled perfectly with telling dialogue — this film comes closest to depicting straightforward romance on the road as practiced by probably 90 percent of travelers.

A Winter Tan

Harrowing adaptation of Maryse Holder’s book of letters, Give Sorrow Words, describing destructive travel sex in Mexico. Commendable for bringing narrative sense to Holder’s life, although actress Jackie Burroughs seems too attractive to be beset by the demons that clawed onto Holder.

The Sheltering Sky

Akin to “A Passage to India” in its look at exotic sex as deranging. The most beautiful of the films in this list, thanks to the sure eye of director Bernardo Bertulucci, and perhaps the most exciting, in its sex scene involving Kit and the Taureg Belqassim, who displays sexual joy during their union.

Shirley Valentine

Highly entertaining look, full of insight and frankness, at a British housewife who deliberate hives off to Greece for vacation carousing. Interesting contrast in terms of the female protagonist’s deliberate decision to engage in sex travel to How Stella Got Her Groove Back — wherein Stella stumbles into her vacation relationship.

Echoes of Paradise

This Australian film describes, with soap opera depth, an unfulfilled wife and her Balinese lover. Slow moving and predictable, the film at least documented the availability of beach boys in tourist Asia at an early date (1987).

A Room with a View

Shares the same author (Forster) as A Passage to India, and a complex relationship to Heat and Dust by Forster revisionist heir Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This trio of films proved quite popular, with Room the most jubilant, and illustrating the sensual centrality of pagan Italy to the awakening of the Western woman.

A Passage to India

A pair of Englishwomen newly arrived in India, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) and Miss Adela Quested (Judy Davis) find themself more open than other colonials to friendship with local people, much like Olivia in Heat and Dust. Epitome of the school of thought that travel sex equals danger and that Eastern sensuality unhinges the Western rationalist. The closing courtroom scene proves quite entertaining.

Heat and Dust

Grand exploration of many themes of female travel sex, including how Western women grant equality on Third World men by acknowledging their manliness, and how sexual adventuring by women travelers has coincided with two eras of surging feminism. As Olivia washes the back of her effete husband, Douglas, he says: “They’re so transparent. The Indians, all of them. They’re like children.”

“They look like grownup men to me,” Olivia replies. “Certainly the Nawab does.” A handsome film with strong undercurrents of sexual tension.


Landmark for showing female sexuality in Asia and Thailand as a playground for women, too. Emmanuelle, a French diplomats’ wife, enjoys airplane sex with a sultry-eyed stranger on the way to join her husband, Jean, in Thailand. Jean encourages her to continue her explorations with European men, European women and Thai kick boxers. The sex scenes fall somewhere between naughty and soft, soft porn. 3-DVD set also includes the two official followups, “Emmanuelle 2” and “Goodbye Emmanuelle.”

Bombay Talkie

Memorable scenes of absurd Bollywood stage sets and a chance to see the handsome real-life couple, the splendid Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal, play the main roles. Early Merchant-Ivory production shows direction the producers would take in continually mining the vein explored by novelist E.M. Forster, of overcoming class, race and age obstacles to following the heart’s path.

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

Based on a real-life romance between author Han Suyin and a British war correspondent based in Hong Kong. Pretty scenery, and observations on the appeal of the Asian or part-Asian woman to the expatriate. One wonders why her The Mountain Is Young about an even more important travel romance she engaged in, never became a film … we do know that Emily Hahn worked briefly on a screenplay for Mountain.

The Sheik

Though presented as a fable-like romantic adventure, “The Sheik” was not all that far off the mark even when it was released in 1921, given the real-life adventures in the Arab world of Lady Jane Digby, Isabelle Eberhardt, Emily Keene and Sally Nedrett. This film still has the capacity to fascinate 80 years after its release! Rudolph Valentino’s breakthrough movie also powerfully demonstrates how the eroticism of the exotic was recognized eons before the 1980s explosion in female travel sex.