Lord of the Rings Tourism Hits New Zealand

Nomad Safaris' tea break on a Lord of the Rings tour. Marie Javins photo.
Nomad Safaris’ tea break on a Lord of the Rings tour. Marie Javins photo.

Middle Earth is right Smack dab in New Zealand

By Marie Javins

The star of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is not a hobbit, wizard, or reluctant king. It’s not Kiwi director Peter Jackson or his special effects team. No, the star — with no acting required — is New Zealand.

New Zealand tourist officials jokingly billed their nation as “Best Supporting Country” shortly after The Fellowship of the Rings won an Oscar for cinematography.

The small Pacific nation provided about 150 locations for the films, including the provincial Hobbit-inhabited Shire, foreboding mountains of Mordor, and elven strongholds of Rivendell and Lothlorien.

The entire country seemed to get into the act, with a Wellington cricket crowd of 30,000 bellowing like orcs for the soundtrack, and hundreds of Kiwi extras cheerfully donning prosthetic ears and hair to participate as orcs and urak-hai of Middle-earth.

The country that gave us Xena and Boba Fett have embraced the Lord of the Rings films with zeal. The world premiere of The Two Towers was held at Wellington’s Embassy Cinema.

Postage stamps of both films have been released, Air New Zealand has painted hobbits on one of its 747 planes, and Wellington was officially renamed “Middle-earth” for a week when The Fellowship of the Rings was released in 2001. A member of Parliament has even been named “Minister Responsible for Lord of the Rings.”

While tourism has suffered in most of the world after the World Trade Center attack and the Bali bombing, New Zealand has seen an increase in tourism over the past two years. Some of that increase can be attributed to the perception that New Zealand is a “safe” destination, but most of that increase is no doubt due to New Zealand’s natural beauty as showcased in Lord of the Rings. Tourists are streaming to New Zealand, clamoring for a look at Middle Earth.

Rings or Rubbish?

“Tolkien’s world no more exists in New Zealand than in any other landscape that one can visit,” said a representative of the Tolkien estate in the December 31 New York Times. She was quick to dismiss the Tolkien connection with New Zealand as “ridiculous.”

Certainly, the books written by J.R.R. Tolkien have no connection with New Zealand. But the film is unarguably as New Zealand as the kiwi bird, the Maori haka, and sheep jokes cracked by Aussie neighbors. Actor Elijah Wood (Frodo) reputedly put it best in his oft-quoted comment that “New Zealand is Middle Earth.”

And tourists don’t care whether or not Tolkien intended for Middle Earth to come to life. Some visit to tour specific locations, but many more come simply to marvel at the scenery that they had a taste of in the films.

The onslaught of “Ringons” — as coined by David Gatward-Ferguson, who runs Nomad Safaris “Safari of the Rings” — is good news for tour operators. Operators provide location tours in helicopters, small planes, and 4WD vehicles. Tourists who don’t want to join a tour can buy The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook or follow one of New Zealand Tourism’s free suggested Lord of the Rings itineraries.

Plan Your Own Epic

New Zealand Tourism offers suggested Lord of the Rings driving routes on its website. This information is popular — receiving up to 150,000 website hits a month — and free. Unfortunately, those on a budget may be disappointed. The driving routes are specific but only mention general regions, not precise film locations. You’ll still need to buy Ian Brodie’s guidebook if you want in-depth information.

Ian Brodie’s enthusiastic valentine to both his home country and a trilogy he has read over 40 times is called THE Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook.** Since it was published in late 2002, it has seen six printings and sold over 60,000 copies in New Zealand and Australia. It is unabashedly personal and chaotic as the focus switches without notice from Maori mythology to local history to descriptions of favorite haunts alongside film tidbits and scene locations down to their GPS coordinates.

Lothlorien, home to Galadriel and her elves. Marie Javins photo.
Lothlorien, home to Galadriel and her elves. Marie Javins photo.

“I facetiously call the book a Lonely Planet Guide to Middle-earth,” explained Brodie in an e-mail interview. “I wanted the book to be a guide for visitors to this wonderful country of ours and to also act as a guide for people who have seen the movie but not read the book.”

The book is not available outside of Australia and New Zealand but can be ordered online from Brodie’s own New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum bookstore. Future editions will cover the final film and include more detail about the current releases.

There and Back Again

The biggest concentration of professional Lord of the Rings film tour operators is in Queenstown on the South Island.

Robert and Janet Rutherford’s Glenorchy Air runs daily plane Trilogytrail™ excursions through the central South Island and Queenstown environs. Trips take one to four hours and were popular even before a December mention in the New York Times. Glenorchy Air ferried actors, costumes, and “rushes” during the filming of the trilogy. They have designed unique trips that involve landing on private set locations that are inaccessible by road. Additionally, they have started running the occasional land tour to more accessible locations.

The demand for Trilogytrail™ trips outpaces supply at the moment, but getting more staff is difficult for such a specific job. Not just any pilot can conduct a Lord of the Rings tour.

“It’s very specialized. Pilots all have to read the books, view the extended DVD, and train extensively,” said Janet Rutherford. “They must go on the tours ten times to each locale before conducting their own tours. You’ve got to know your stuff.”

David Gatward-Ferguson, the owner of Nomad Safaris, agrees that you can’t bluff a Lord of the Rings fan. A fan of the books and movies himself, he drills potential employees to see if they’re “Ringons.” If they aren’t, he also requires that they read the books, see the movies, and view the DVD repeatedly.

It isn’t hard to find “Ringons” in Queenstown. Several of Nomad’s drivers were even in the films.

“I was an uruk-hai at the end of Fellowship,” explained driver Michael Stearne as he waved at the serene woods that had been Lothlorien. He’d worn a foam latex mask while stumbling around looking vicious.

Stearne added that many customers who come on Nomad’s 4WD Safari of the Rings have not even seen the Lord of the Rings movies. They go on the trips for the scenery, and the information about the films is just interesting trivia for them.

4WD land tours are economic, and that also entices in non-Ringons. Airplane trips are pricier but reach more remote destinations and provide unrivalled scenery. But 4WD trips have their own advantage.

“We go and stand on the spot where the camera was, where Peter Jackson was, and connect with the site,” said Gatward-Ferguson. “Instead of looking at the set, you’re IN the set.”

Both Nomad Safaris and Glenorchy Air expect to run Lord of the Rings tours for years to come.

“If you look at Austria,” Janet Rutherford pointed out, “Sound of Music” tourism is still going and that movie was released over thirty years ago.”

For some of the most spectacular scenery on film, the road goes ever on.

*”New Zealand, Land of the ‘Rings,” Markets Itself, by James Brooke, New York Times, Dec. 31, 2002 © New York Times

**The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook © 2002 Ian Brodie, published by Harper Collins.

***The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King and the characters within are trademarks of The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Tolkien Enterprises under license to New Line Productions, Inc.

Marie JavinsMarie Javins is a comic book illustrator and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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