Today marks the worldwide premiere of the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, director Peter Jackson's upcoming film based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel. With a full 12 months until the film's cinematic release, The Hobbit is set to be easily the most hyped film of 2012.
I could detect a palpable buzz in New Zealand when I visited last month, as Hobbit fever swiftly replaced World Cup fever in the public conscience. In the Wellington suburb of Miramar, giant barrels - presumed to be the wine barrels used by Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves to escape the clutches of the wood elves - were being carried from the carpenter's workshops and loaded into transport vehicles, bound for the film set at the Pelorus River in Marlborough. In Matamata, where the film set of Hobbiton is located, a convoy of 50 trucks wound their way up the rural road and onto the set. In Nelson, camera crews shot fresh footage of the surrounding scenery, flown by the same local helicopter pilots who had flown Sir Ian McKellen to Mount Olympus, aka Eregion, in 2000.
It's not just directors, actors, gaffers and editors who are working around the clock, however. New Zealand's tourism industry is taking steps to make sure that there are no missed opportunities with The Hobbit. So-called 'Tolkien Tourism' is big business in New Zealand. This current project is a golden opportunity to plant New Zealand firmly in the imaginations of a new generation of film-goers.
It's difficult to overstate the impact which Jackson's trilogy had on tourism in New Zealand. The annual tourist influx climbed from 1.7 million in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2006 - a 40% surge. As visitor numbers continued to increase, tour operations catering for LOTR pilgrims gradually sprung up across the two islands. Glenorchy Air, who transported actors, costumes and rushes during filming, today run daily 'Trilogytrail' flights through the Queenstown area. Further north, in Nelson, Reid Heslop Helicopters offer a champagne picnic atop Mount Olympus. Last year, Wellington Rover took 4000 visitors on Rings tours, many of whom dress up as their favourite characters and rattle off catchphrases. After The Lord of the Rings won an Oscar for cinematography, Tourism New Zealand ran a series of adverts billing New Zealand as "Best Supporting Country".
Hoards of tourists continue to visit New Zealand specifically to traipse along Hobbit pathways, have their photos taken at the entrance to Hobbiton and gawp at replica swords, flags and helmets. Today, tourism contributes 9% of the country's GDP, and the pulling power of Middle Earth is valued at a hefty share of that.
Hence the nationwide panic in October 2010, when an actor's strike threatened to derail filming in New Zealand, and countries such as Slovenia and Northern Ireland were floated as alternatives. The value of The Hobbit to the film and tourism industries of New Zealand has been estimated at £954 million, yet the cost would have been even greater: To a new generation of cinema-goers, Middle Earth would have moved to Europe.
The agreement remains a bone of contention, however. The government changed NZ employment law, agreed to pay Warner extra rebates of NZ$13 million, and agreed to contribute NZ$10 million toward marketing costs of the two films. Some commentators have called the price to New Zealand 'extortionate' whilst others insist that Prime Minister John Key negotiated a shrewd deal. In exchange for the subsidies, The Hobbit remains in New Zealand, and every DVD and download of The Hobbit will feature a Jackson-directed video promoting New Zealand as a tourist and filmmaking destination. "It's a bargain. It is gold literally for New Zealand, for brand New Zealand," according to marketing expert Paul Sinclair.
On top of far-sighted marketing strategy and advertising campaigns, there are plenty of other initiatives geared toward making sure that the new wave of Tolkien Tourists don't leave disappointed. During filming of the original LOTR trilogy, Hobbiton was built as a temporary set and removed, but when filming of The Hobbit ceases, the timber homes with thatched roofs and stone bridges will remain, as perfect photo ops for tourists. There are unconfirmed plans to construct a permanent Lord of the Rings museum for some of the 40,000 props and costumes now warehoused in New Zealand. Family-run tour operations are updating their websites, and recruiting extra staff for the summer tourist season, which - coincidentally or not - begins right around the time The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiers.
Film lovers, Tolkien fans and holidaying families, take note. From 14 December 2012 onwards, New Zealand is most certainly expecting your journey.
Anna Hart flew to Auckland courtesy of Singapore Airlines
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