20 years have passed since the release of the first film in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. And a lot has happened since December 10, 2001. iPhones and Netflix’s streaming service have been invented; Blockbuster has vanished. “The world has changed,” Lady Galadriel presciently said in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring. What hasn’t changed, however, is our love for Middle Earth.
The movies captured our imaginations with snowy mountain peaks and rugged, untouched wilderness; of wild plains, bucolic villages, and treacherous caverns. It introduced us not just to Tolkein’s unfailable imagination, but to the very real landscapes of New Zealand, where the movies were filmed.
After the trilogy gained international popularity, New Zealand became synonymous with Middle Earth. That popularity only continued with the subsequent release of The Hobbit films in 2012. That year, Gregg Anderson, general manager of Western long haul markets for Tourism New Zealand told Forbes, “We’ve seen a 50 percent increase in arrivals to New Zealand since Lord of the Rings.”
If anyone deserves to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the LOTR trilogy, it’s New Zealand. The Hobbiton movie set is marking the occasion on December 10, 2021, with an outdoor screening of the films — the first-ever 4k screening of the movies in New Zealand. Weta Workshop, the creative force behind the movies’ costumes, props, and set design, is launching a Bag End™ collectible sculpture and an exhibition of film costumes in Wellington on the 20th. There’s also the first-annual Middle Earth Halfling Marathon taking place through the Hobbiton Movie Set and the surrounding hills of the Waikato farmland, but that’s not until April 2, so there’s plenty of time to get in shape. It’s worth noting, however, that borders remain closed to international visitors through April, 2022, so you might be off the hook from actually running unless you live in New Zealand.
Here at Matador Network, we’re celebrating in our own way, with an interview with Sarah Handley, General Manager of Tourism New Zealand for the Americas and Europe. We talked about all things LOTR tourism, including the movies’ impact on the country’s tourism economy, how New Zealanders actually feel about living in Middle Earth, and even the highly-anticipated Amazon adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
How did the LOTR trilogy impact the New Zealand tourism landscape?
International travelers have always been drawn to New Zealand’s epic landscapes and friendly people. The success of the Lord of the Rings films has definitely had a significant impact on tourism, essentially propelling New Zealand as a destination onto the world stage. In 2019, 18 percent of people who visited New Zealand for a holiday were initially interested in New Zealand as a destination due to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. For nine percent of those, it helped them seriously consider New Zealand as a holiday destination, and we know in the same year 33 percent of all people that visited New Zealand for a holiday visited a film location. For the most part, our tourism industry is proud to continue to offer the same authentic and unique experiences that New Zealand was known for prior to the film’s release, but there is no doubt the exposure these films generated increased the visibility of New Zealand on the world stage.
Did the Hobbit movies give the tourism industry another boost?
The release of the first Hobbit film in 2012 gave New Zealand the opportunity to remind the world it is the home of Middle Earth by showcasing our breathtaking landscapes on screen again. To coincide with the release, Hobbiton Movie Set, New Zealand’s most popular tourist destination, rebuilt a number of their Lord of The Rings sets and opened the famous Green Dragon Inn. They saw a steady increase in visitors as a result.
How many visitors come to Hobbiton each year?
In 2012 (when the Hobbit films debuted) approximately 150,000 people enjoyed the Hobbiton experience, this has since grown significantly to 650,000 people in 2019 (their biggest year yet). We estimate that visitors who are influenced to visit New Zealand due to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films contribute approximately $630 million NZD ($428 million USD) annually to the economy, however, the true value to New Zealand in terms of brand exposure and reputation is much greater.
What are some of the most popular LOTR tourism sites in New Zealand?
Hobbiton, located in the Waikato district, is undoubtedly the most popular film tourism attraction in New Zealand, however, there are several other film tourism experiences visitors can enjoy. Touring the famous Weta Workshop and Studio for an insight into filmmaking creativity in Wellington is a great way to learn about the making of movie effects. In Queenstown, you can take a 4WD or helicopter tour to see up close some of the most dramatic landscapes used as locations in the Lord of the Rings films. In Nelson, you can visit the workshop where they made the original gold ring for the LOTR films, you can even take one home with you!
What about sites that aren’t LOTR-focused?
International visitors have endless destinations to choose from once they get to New Zealand. Popular cities and attractions are Queenstown (our outdoor adventure capital), Rotorua for geothermal experiences and rich Maori culture, The Bay of Islands for sailing, white sand beaches and forests, and of course the Marlborough region to sample our famous Sauvignon blanc and seafood.
Has there been any pushback about leaving sets like Hobbiton intact in these otherwise unspoiled natural environments?
The Hobbiton movie set was created on private farmland and designed in a way to minimize impact on the natural environment. As a business, Hobbiton recognises the community they operate in and run various initiatives to support it such as open days, fundraisers, and school events. New Zealand has strict regulations when it comes to filming in outdoor locations and the natural environment, including national parks which adopt a ‘leave only footprints’ policy.
How do the people of New Zealand generally feel about being associated so closely with Middle Earth? Is there any resentment, or do they fully embrace the films that brought the country so much attention?
Generally, New Zealanders are extremely proud to have their country be associated as the home of Middle Earth. The films had a huge impact on our country’s reputation and built the foundation for what is now a thriving screen production industry. Nearly every New Zealander who has travelled overseas at some point has encountered the phrase “New Zealand, that’s where they filmed The Lord of The Rings, right?”
Any details you can share about the upcoming LOTR Amazon series?
Amazon produced the first season of their new Lord of The Rings series in Auckland with location filming taking place around the country. Fans can expect to see some stunning New Zealand backdrops in the first season scheduled to be released in September 2022.