What ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ Means For New Zealand

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Good luck coming across a story about “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” this week without it mentioning just how feverish New Zealand has become as its release date approaches.

Wellington, the capital, where the film will debut Wednesday, has even renamed itself “The Middle of Middle-earth.” Mayor Celia Wade-Brown announced the name change last month, saying the city “has been integral in bringing the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien to life on the big screen.” Wellington recently opened an artisan market to hawk small-folk paraphernalia, and it is now decked out in flags and banners with the Middle of Middle-earth logo.

Tourism New Zealand, meanwhile, unleashed a massive campaign under the slogan “100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand.” It features epic and cinematic images of landscapes similar to those in the Hobbit, sans the computer-generated imagery.

Air New Zealand, the national carrier, is also struck by Hobbit fever. It just released a kooky Hobbit-themed safety video that’s become a viral hit on YouTube, and it even painted images from the film on one of its aircraft.

Some might say the island nation is stealing the spotlight from the movie itself -- and it’s no coincidence. New Zealand paid a pretty penny to keep Middle-earth on its soil, and in return, it’s doing everything it can to reap the benefits.

Putting New Zealand On The Map

If New Zealand’s actions seem somewhat outlandish, consider this: The year before the first "Lord of the Rings" film came out and thrust a mythical vision of the islands in front of a global audience, the nation received 1.7 million visitors. Six years later in 2006, that number surged 40 percent to 2.4 million.

The tourism sector now employs more people than any other field. Tourism itself generated $6.9 billion last year, with another $8.8 billion in indirect contributions, which, combined, represents 8.6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (thanks in no small part to the pulling power of Middle-earth).

Tolkien tourism, too, is big business in New Zealand, and several operators are kicking off their Hobbit-themed tours this week with star-studded red carpet events and nationwide sightseeing excursions.

New Zealander Peter Jackson is credited with putting his hometown of Wellington on the map and transforming “Wellywood’s” film industry into one that has welcomed the likes of such big budget blockbusters as “Avatar,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “10,000 BC,” among others.

Now, every DVD and download of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will feature a Jackson-directed video promoting New Zealand as a tourist and filmmaking destination.

The government has made it clear that it’s invested millions of dollars into the Hobbit franchise. Now, it hopes you’ll book a ticket to Middle-earth, too.

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