Before The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand was just New Zealand. A set of skinny, oddly shaped islands stuffed with sheep and a few million people, set off by some very nice mountain ranges. Down at the bottom of the globe, an 11-hour flight from Hong Kong, its international fame was mostly restricted to the fields of lamb, beef and dairy. It certainly didn’t have much of a film industry.
But as soon as the camera panned across the cloud-shrouded Misty Mountains in the first few minutes of 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, New Zealand became Middle-Earth, and a fresh horde of tourists discovered the country’s outrageous beauty.
‘You can argue that Lord of the Rings was the best unpaid advertisement that New Zealand has ever had,’ Bruce Lahood, United States and Canadian regional manager for Tourism New Zealand, told USA Today in 2006, adding that New Zealand had been the most successful country to benefit from movie tourism in a decade.
‘We have seen the influence a film can have on people’s travel decisions,’ says Rebecca Ingram, general manager New Zealand and Government Relations at Tourism New Zealand. ‘Nearly one in five visitors still cite The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a reason they chose to visit New Zealand, almost two decades after the first film was released.’
Tourist numbers shot up 40 per cent in the five years after the first LOTR film. By 2018, 3.6 million people – the equivalent of three-quarters of the population of New Zealand – visited the country every year. Today tourism is the nation’s biggest export industry, bringing in NZ$39.1 billion (HK$201 billion) annually and employing one in seven New Zealanders.
Left: Tom Archer; Right: Jeff finley/unsplash
Tourism has been boosted not just by the Tolkien phenomenon, but by subsequent blockbusters that have taken advantage of the spectacular scenery: movies including The Hobbit trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Samurai and A Wrinkle in Time. Even Taylor Swift filmed the music video for her hit Out of the Woods in Auckland and Queenstown in 2015. (Before them, of course, New Zealand-made Oscar winners The Piano and Whale Rider also put the country’s dramatic scenery front and centre.)
But New Zealand’s rebirth as a pretty Hollywood background hasn’t come without issues. The influx of tourists has meant local government, wilderness areas and tourism infrastructure in some parts of New Zealand have struggled to cope. Tourists have hit some of the country’s most picturesque – and environmentally sensitive – areas particularly hard.
Queenstown, for example, the spectacular South Island hinterland around which many of these productions have been filmed, is home to about 23,000 people, but saw 5.5 million visitor nights in 2017. Despite traffic jams now being a daily occurrence, thousands of additional hotel beds are under construction.
The influx isn’t just due to the films – Queenstown has been one of New Zealand’s major tourism destinations since its colonial days – but they’ve certainly added to its profile. ‘We know that around 12 per cent of all visitors to Queenstown want to experience a Lord of the Rings or other well-known film location for themselves during their stay, and there’s a strong sector of the tourism industry here that caters for that,’ Destination Queenstown chief executive Graham Budd says. Mountains, rivers and lakes have become ‘stars in their own right’.
The Queenstown Lakes District Council is advocating for a local visitor tax to help the region cope with tourist numbers, and that’s taking place on a national level as well. A well-overdue national tourist levy of NZ$35 (HK$180) went into effect at the beginning of this month. It’s set to raise NZ$80 million (HK$423 million) a year, to be split between conservation and tourism, paying for things like public toilets, water, walkways and roads.
Tourism New Zealand’s Rebecca Ingram says the country has taken a number of steps to ensure it’s protected and preserved. ‘The visitor sector gives back more than it takes,’ she says, citing an initiative ‘that actively encourages international and domestic travellers to act as guardians of New Zealand’.
Nearly 20 years after The Fellowship of the Ring, it seems quaint to remember how the LOTR trilogy brought so much pride to New Zealanders. Five days before Christmas 2001, when the credits of the first movie rolled in darkened cinemas all over the country, people stayed behind to wait for the names of friends and family to pop up, eagerly pointing them out.
LOTR and subsequent films have created a national production and post-production industry staffed by highly skilled New Zealanders. Despite yearly ebbs and flows, government statistics say that the screen industry made about NZ$3.3 billion (HK$17 billion) in 2018, and 20 international movies and series have committed to production this year. The nation’s capital, Wellington, home of Sir Peter Jackson and his Weta Workshop special effects empire, gained a whole new industry when LOTR came to New Zealand. The airport still hosts a giant Smaug the dragon in its departure terminal, and has at times featured two massive one-tonne giant eagles and a 13-metre-long sculpture of Gollum.
Left: Iswanto arif/unsplash
But while the film industry employs many and contributes much to the economy, the nation’s taxpayers have heavily subsidised Hollywood and Jackson’s Weta Workshop. A 2012 New York Times article reported that ‘in New Zealand, the business of running a country goes hand in hand with the business of making movies’, calling former Prime Minister John Key’s administration ‘a grand experiment in the fusion of film and government’.
The people of New Zealand essentially subsidised the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy to the tune of NZ$150 million (HK$771 million), and multimillion dollar taxpayer subsidies continue. Since 2010, New Zealand citizens have given more than NZ$550 million (HK$2.8 billion) to film companies, ranging from huge Hollywood studios to local filmmakers. A 2018 government report said that for every taxpayer dollar spent, New Zealand got up to NZ$2.58 back, although it was difficult to properly estimate the benefits of the film and TV industries to the country.
Two decades after the Tolkien films, plenty of tourism businesses still trade on its universe. There’s a Middle-Earth winery, located in New Zealand’s geographical centre of Nelson. The movie set of Hobbiton, a 5.5-hectare site on a family-run sheep farm in the northern Waikato region, has become a permanent tourist attraction with daily guided tours that have now welcomed more than half a million people. There are talks underway to construct a national Lord of the Rings museum to house some of the 40,000 painstakingly made props and costumes left over after the shoot.
And despite the influx of tourists, New Zealand is still somewhat off the map – quite literally. Thanks to the global emphasis on Europe and the Americas, the country is still routinely left off the map in games like Risk, on products from Ikea, on the walls of Starbucks and airports including Munich, Beijing and Prague, charts in the Smithsonian and globes at the American Geographical Society.
When they do eventually pin these southern islands to their maps, visitors will learn that there’s so much more still to discover in New Zealand – an entire land beyond Middle-Earth.