A precious little earner

Familiar ring to it ... <i>The Lord of the Rings</i> scenes can even be found at Wellington airport.
Familiar ring to it ... The Lord of the Rings scenes can even be found at Wellington airport. Photo: Reuters

Peter Jackson's Tolkien franchise generates millions of dollars for New Zealand's tourism industry, writes Garry Maddox.

Having seen how The Lord of the Rings movies attracted tourists from around the world, New Zealand is expecting Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy to inspire another boom.

From 1999 to 2004, the Oscar-winning filmmaker's first journey to Middle-earth contributed to a 47 per cent jump in spending by international visitors to $5.7 billion a year.

And though just 6 per cent of all visitors cited The Lord of the Rings as one of the reasons for their trip, that would still be a significant boost for a country attracting 2.6 million visitors a year if it happened again.

"If we grew our tourism numbers by 6 per cent, that would be worth between $NZ400 million [$320 million] and $NZ500 million a year," says the chief executive of Tourism New Zealand, Kevin Bowler.

The tourism authorities say the single most significant reason tourists cite for visiting New Zealand - outside the Rugby World Cup, at least - is the landscape.

"The films really help in that regard because they beautifully showcase that landscape," Bowler says. "The level of integration of New Zealand and the films through the marketing that we do, Air New Zealand does and others do has really got that connection quite strong now."

Bowler says The Lord of the Rings movies sparked visits by hard-core fans, who knew lines from the films, where particular scenes were shot and who wanted to have their photo taken at filming locations around the country. These were the kind of fans who flocked to Wellington in costume for the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in November.

Less-rabid fans are interested in seeing filming locations as part of a broader experience of the country's landscapes. "What a lot of the operators have done really cleverly, particularly around Queenstown, is they've said 'we'll take you into the back country, we'll show you gold-panning, we'll take you in a four-wheel-drive and we'll show you some locations from the films'," Bowler says.

After the release of An Unexpected Journey, The Lord of the Rings tours around Wellington and Queenstown are likely to be popular as they no doubt expand to include Hobbit filming locations. The next two film instalments are due for release on Boxing Day in 2013, then July 2014.

Also expected to appeal to tourists is the improved hobbit village where Bilbo and Frodo live in Middle-earth, on a sheep and cattle farm at Matamata, 175 kilometres from Auckland.

After the location was used for The Lord of the Rings, the sets were dismantled. But the Alexander family turned the site into a tourist attraction, with tiny plywood and styrofoam hobbit homes, that attracted more than 260,000 visitors in a decade. When Jackson wanted to use the farm again for the Hobbit movies, the family had one condition: it had to be rebuilt as a permanent village. So the knighted filmmaker and the Alexanders formed a joint venture to rebuild Hobbiton.

As well as 44 permanent hobbit holes complete with gardens, orchards, smoking fireplaces and washing lines dangling hobbit clothes, the filmmakers have built a replica of the Green Dragon Inn, which serves hobbit beer and cider.

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