Welcome to Middle Earth
Jet Boating Slice of Heaven Dive Poor Knights Islands
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. 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