NZ Tourism Chiefs Hope For Hobbit Riches

Jonathan Samuels, Australia Correspondent
NZ Tourism Chiefs Hope For Hobbit Riches

Like the lead character in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, tourism bosses in New Zealand hope they too are heading towards a pile of gold.

The new film, which has just had its global premiere in New Zealand's capital Wellington, was mostly shot in the country - or Middle-earth as New Zealand Tourism has now nicknamed it.

Tourism in New Zealand has suffered recently from the global financial crisis, a strong local currency and also increased long haul airfares. The organisation hopes it can revive some of its fortunes by linking itself closely to the new film trilogy by director Peter Jackson.

The tourism industry is missing no opportunity to plug into the film's hype. 

For example passengers at Auckland airport are greeted by a monster Gollum character looming over the terminal.

Special stamps and coins have been produced, there are numerous Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings tours to go on, even Air New Zealand's inflight safety video is full of characters from the movies - including a cameo from Jackson himself.

In the rural heart of the North Island is Hobbiton - the home of Hobbits from the novels by JRR Tolkien.

Part of the lush, green, rolling farmland owned by the Alexander family was turned into Hobbiton after being spotted in 1998 as the perfect location by film scouts working on the Lord Of The Rings.

They were struck by the absence of electricity pylons and roads, as well as seeing a tree which they thought would be perfect for the centrepiece in a scene involving a big hobbit party.

Farmer, and now managing director of Hobbiton movie set tours, Russell Alexander, told Sky News "The scouts stopped right up there at what we call the better part of the farm and then I believe they hired a plane and flew over, saw the lake and the party tree there and then went and knocked on my dad's door."

The farm has been used numerous times for filming, most recently for the new Hobbit movie. Alexander is under no illusion as to the benefit of the films on the local economy.

"It's had a very positive effect on New Zealand as a destination. We are a small country and that brand awareness, how do you buy that? That's what a movie does."  

The company hopes visitor numbers will explode after the new movie is released. They anticipate 150,000 people could visit by the end of the next financial year.

There is no denying the films have been good for business in New Zealand.  After the Lord Of The Rings films came out a Tourism New Zealand survey showed 6% of visitors came mainly as a result of having seen the movies. They added around £250m annually to the country's income. 

But what happens when the Middle-earth tales are all told or if the latest movie is a box office flop?

Tourism New Zealand boss Kevin Bowler denies his organisation is becoming too reliant on Jackson's films, saying: "Film is just part of our overall marketing programme.

"So for us it is all about promoting the landscape, promoting the experiences and the people of New Zealand to the world, so there's lots of different ways we can do that but we are certainly not shy about using this opportunity."

And the films haven't always brought positive news. A row with the unions for example had to be smoothed over by the New Zealand government .

However, on the whole the glamour of Hollywood and New Zealand's natural beauty have been a good match. Tourism bosses hope they can once again run rings round competitors in the long haul market as the Hobbit film hits the big screen.

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