Wel­come to Mid­dle Earth

Jet Boat­ing Slice of Heaven Dive Poor Knights Is­lands

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It be­gan with a film script and some sig­nif­i­cant play­ers – Kiwi film­maker Peter Jack­son, his team of lo­ca­tion scouts and pro­duc­tion crew, and a sweep of epic land­scapes that, in the direc­tor’s hands, be­came the real Mid­dle-earth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved fan­tasy clas­sics.

Just 13 years ago – back in 2001 as the first of Peter Jack­son’s The Lord of the Rings Tril­ogy screened to au­di­ences around the world – it’s safe to say that no one imag­ined how the power of the screen could turn the rolling green hills of a Waikato farm into one of New Zealand’s most-vis­ited tourism ac­tiv­i­ties and an in­ter­na­tional bucket-list travel des­ti­na­tion.

But that’s ex­actly what has hap­pened at Hob­biton Movie Set Tours, near Mata­mata, and it’s not just there – towns and coun­try dis­tricts all over New Zealand are reap­ing tourism dol­lars from land­scapes and set­tings renowned from the epic film trilo­gies based on the Tolkien tales.

For the year end­ing March 2014, ac­cord­ing to Re­gional Tourism Es­ti­mates re­leased by New Zealand’s Min­istry of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion & Em­ploy­ment (MBIE), there was sig­nif­i­cant growth in in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tor spend in New Zealand’s key tourist des­ti­na­tions. The es­ti­mates showed that in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors spent an es­ti­mated $7.2 bil­lion in New Zealand’s re­gions (ex­clud­ing that spent on ed­u­ca­tion and air travel) – up $600 mil­lion from the pre­vi­ous year.

The es­ti­mates also showed in­ter­na­tional spend­ing in the MatamataPiako dis­trict, the home of Hob­biton, has risen more than three-fold over the pre­vi­ous five years, from $11 mil­lion (2009) to $37 mil­lion in 2014. This strong growth il­lus­trated the im­por­tance of Hob­bit-re­lated at­trac­tions for tourism in that area, MBIE Sec­tor Per­for­mance Manager Peter El­lis said. [1]

[1. Min­istry of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion & Em­ploy­ment (MBIE) 28 Novem­ber 2014]

It helps the spread that, be­tween them, the six films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hob­bit Trilo­gies de­pict up to 150 lo­ca­tions in eight re­gions. The crew for The Hob­bit Tril­ogy alone spent 10 weeks on the road film­ing in 40 dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions through­out the North and South Is­lands of New Zealand, in just about ev­ery type of imag­in­able land­scape – vol­canic, lime­stone, farm­land, rivers, alpine lakes and grass­lands, forests and re­mote moun­tain peaks and passes all fea­ture as the film jour­ney un­folds.

En­thralled by the majesty and mys­tique of th­ese land­scapes, from the first film on­wards, Tolkien fans be­gan trav­el­ling the by­ways of New Zealand look­ing to dis­cover the real Mid­dle-earth for them­selves – mak­ing their way to re­mote lo­ca­tions, climb­ing over fences

or knock­ing on the doors of sur­prised landown­ers.

Since then a lu­cra­tive tourism in­dus­try has built up around many of the film lo­ca­tions of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from guided tours led by pas­sion­ate ‘Rings’ fans and he­li­copter flights pi­loted by the lo­cals who flew the stars to the orig­i­nal lo­ca­tions, to trekking and kayak­ing ex­pe­di­tions fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of hob­bits and dwarves. And then there’s the as­so­ci­ated hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try.

Welling­ton Air­port wel­comes vis­i­tors to ‘The Mid­dle of Mid­dle-earth’ and lit­er­ally just down the road in Jack­son’s Mi­ra­mar film hub, mul­ti­tudes of tourists make the pil­grim­age into the Weta Cave to ad­mire and buy the works of the artists who cre­ated the props and spe­cial ef­fects for the films, queue for self­ies with the gi­ant trolls stand­ing guard out­side or take in­sider-guided tours of Weta Work­shop. In down­town Welling­ton you can even fol­low a Mid­dle-earth cos­tume trail.

Hob­biton – on the trail

Mid­way be­tween Auck­land and Ro­torua, year-round, the car park at Hob­biton is a bus­tle of coaches, mo­torhomes and cars as tourists pull into the Shire’s Rest vis­i­tor cen­tre to book tick­ets and climb on board the shut­tle buses to begin the two-hour guided tour of the movie set. Check the on­line book­ing en­gine dur­ing the peak sum­mer sea­son, and it’s not un­usual to find most of the tours on any one day al­ready booked out. The own­ers are ex­pect­ing to pass the one-mil­lion-vis­i­tor mark in the com­ing few months.

Vis­i­tors rep­re­sent ev­ery con­ti­nent – from bus­loads of Ja­panese and Chi­nese on group tours, to in­de­pen­dent trav­ellers from just about ev­ery­where else, near and far. Some, like Cathy and Gary Baker from New Brunswick, Canada, who’ve just chalked up their fourth visit, will come again and again.

Hob­biton Movie Set extends over 12 acres, in­cor­po­rat­ing 44 hob­bit holes on a gen­tle green hill­side, sur­round­ing the fa­mous ‘Party Field’ and the lake where the Mill House and the Green Dragon Inn com­plete the 17th-cen­tury in­spired English vil­lage – a tran­quil vista of ram­bling paths and colour­ful door­ways, sur­rounded by pretty gar­dens and or­chards, wash­ing swing­ing in the breeze, smok­ing chim­neys and lan­tern lights in the evening. From the hills, the view spans east across end­less pas­tures to the dis­tant Kaimai moun­tain range.

For ded­i­cated Tolkien fans – of which there now seems to be a never-end­ing sup­ply – ar­rival at Hob­biton can be an emo­tional mo­ment. In the Tolkien saga, Hob­biton was

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