Middle-earth may be mythical, but so too is New Zealand. The only difference is you can visit the latter.

When Sir Peter Jackson chose his home country to shoot "The Lord of the Rings" films, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's eponymous trilogy, few were surprised. With bubbling geyser fields, fern-filled rain forests, steaming-hot pools, foggy fjords, idyllic pastures, and rugged razorback mountains, New Zealand isn't short on chimerical qualities.

It's a place where glaciers carve paths through rain forests, toothy mountains have names like "The Remarkables," and people ski down the side of one puffing volcano and snorkel around another.

Indeed, 80 percent of New Zealand's native flora is found nowhere else on earth, and, formerly a land of large birds, it has no native land mammals, save some bats. Suffice it to say, it's the kind of place where you might expect a clan of wide-eyed hobbits to live -- a place where goblins and orcs, deadly wargs and giant spiders, shape-shifters and sorcerers could lurk behind a Lonely Mountain.

And if we're to follow a Hollywood trend, it's also a place for mystical lions, ferocious woolly mammoths, and extraterrestrial humanoids of the blue-skinned Na'vi tribe.

On a growing list of big-budget films shot wholly or partly in New Zealand are "Avatar," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and "10,000 BC."

But perhaps none have galvanized the nation and its vital tourism industry like "The Lord of the Rings," or LOTR, trilogy.

"New Zealand is on a lot of bucket lists, and we don't have to persuade people too much about its natural beauty," Tourism New Zealand CEO Kevin Bowler said from his office in Auckland, as ash from an eruption at Mount Tongariro, two hours to the south, fell on a volcanic plateau better known to many as Mordor. "But it takes a film like LOTR to make them actually go. You need a catalyst like that to get them to be less apathetic and make the decision."

Bowler said research shows a lot of people want to make the trip, but that they think it's just too far away. LOTR gave them that extra impetus to book a ticket and, if Tourism New Zealand has anything to do with it, so will "The Hobbit."

'The Lord Of the Rings' Effect

The LOTR trilogy generated $2.9 billion in worldwide box-office receipts and another $3 billion in DVD and merchandising sales.

In New Zealand, hiring crew and equipment for the trilogy added about $261 million to the economy during a three-year period. It was also, in large part, responsible for a tourism windfall in the island nation. The number of visitors surged 40 percent, to 2.4 million in 2006 from 1.7 million in 2000, the year before the first movie in the trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," hit theaters, thrusting a mythical version of the islands in front of a global audience.

Before LOTR, New Zealand was simply too far for most Europeans to fathom, being more than a day away by air. Many Americans thought of it as Australia's Canada: close, similar, but not quite the same. Yet, after its cinematic exposure, it became a destination of its own.

The trilogy also helped push tourism above the dairy industry as New Zealand's biggest export for a time, although dairy has since regained its top spot. Visitor arrivals have plateaued in recent years around 2.5 million, but tourism officials hope "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" can send them soaring once again after its anticipated release Dec. 14.

"Throughout the years of the global financial crisis, Chilean volcanoes, deadly earthquakes here in Christchurch, swine-flu epidemics, the plummeting U.S. dollar, and endless other reasons people could use to not travel to the faraway country of New Zealand, LOTR tourism has held steady as other sectors of the tourism industry here wobbled and staggered under enormous losses of clientele," said Melissa Heath, owner and director of LOTR travel specialist Southern Lakes Sightseeing.

Heath said her tours are something of a pilgrimage for many who come from all corners of the world to New Zealand, "where fantasy and reality interface" in the midst of a magical landscape.

"Our guests can wake up and have breakfast in the world of reality and then be picked up and vanish into the fantasy of Middle-earth for the day, following in the footsteps of their beloved heroes. Those who are superkeen can even translate the guide's commentary into Elvish, and others bring along their little LOTR models and position them in the scenery for their ideal photographic memento," Heath said.

Southern Lakes allots time for guests to try out a wide array of real weapons and costumes and uses guides that either acted in the movies or have "professorial knowledge of all things LOTR."

One can glean some of that "professorial knowledge" on their own, too, by using the local bible, "The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook," by Ian Brodie. It's sold more than 500,000 copies and earned a spot on New Zealand's best-seller list.

So-called Tolkien tourism, in all its forms, is big business in New Zealand, and, like Southern Lakes, there are a handful of other outfits carving their own niches.

Vic James runs the popular Red Carpet Tours, in operation since the first film hit theaters in 2001. His company focuses primarily on monthly 12-day journeys -- and business, he said,has remained steady over the years, even though "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the last movie in the trilogy, made its debut almost a decade ago.

"LOTR fans have a lifelong interest in the subject," James explained, adding there is "huge interest" in Red Carpet's "Hobbit Premiere Tour," a 14-day extravaganza that includes "opportunities to visit film sites; a chance to stand alongside the red carpet at the premiere and perhaps meet some of the stars; and a celebratory costume party." The first "Hobbit" tour will be a reunion of sorts for more than three dozen people who already took the LOTR trip.

Both Red Carpet and Southern Lakes will hop on the "Hobbit" bandwagon in earnest in 2013, offering new itineraries through Middle-earth that are a little more about Bilbo and a little less about Frodo.

NZ Almost Loses 'The Hobbit'

New Zealand nearly lost the "Hobbit" movies to another country (Australia, Canada, the U.K., and Eastern Europe were all mentioned as possible alternatives) while Jackson's production company, Wingnut Films, and the Actors Equity union battled over wages. The actors argued that those taking minor roles in the films had no guarantees of minimum wages, working conditions, or payments from DVD sales, and they threatened -- with the backing of the Brussels-based International Federation of Actors -- to boycott the project.

The row was a headline-maker in New Zealand for several weeks in 2010 and spurred thousands of film technicians and ordinary citizens to march through the capital, Wellington, chanting "Save The Hobbit."

Warner Bros. executives made the long journey to Middle-earth, threatening to take the mythical kingdom away with them when they left. In two days of meetings with Prime Minister John Key (also New Zealand's tourism minister), the government went so far as to change employment laws virtually overnight, clarifying the difference between contractors and employees in the film industry, thus making unionization more difficult.

"Making the 'Hobbit' movies here will not only safeguard work for thousands of New Zealanders, but it will also follow the success of the LOTR trilogy in once again promoting New Zealand on the world stage," Key stated after the talks were complete.

His government, to the dismay of many, also agreed to pay Warner Bros. extra rebates of as much as $7.5 million per picture, subject to their success, in an attempt to improve the nation's competitiveness as a filming location. It further agreed to contribute $8.1 million toward the marking costs of the films (so long as "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" made its debut in Wellington) and planned a "long-term strategic partnership" with Warner Bros. to promote the country as both a film and tourist destination.

When all human business was put in order, crews could finally begin staging the mythical disorder in March 2011, years behind schedule, with a new director (Jackson replaced Guillermo del Toro) and a new deal: Every DVD and download of "The Hobbit" would feature a Jackson-directed video promoting New Zealand as a tourist and filmmaking destination.

For brand New Zealand, that was as good as gold.

'A Gift That Keeps On Giving'

The first part of the strategic partnership between New Zealand and Warner Bros. began last month, when Tourism New Zealand joined the Wellington-based Weta production studio at a booth at Comic-Con in San Diego to "extend an invitation to Middle-earth." This month, Tourism New Zealand will officially launch "100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand," playing off the nation's hugely successful "100% Pure" tourism campaign.

Bowler said the advertisements -- scheduled for release in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and major Asian markets -- will show "epic and cinematic images of New Zealand" that will be similar to those in the film, with one major exception: Each scene will feature actual humans (as opposed to Tolkien creations) "to make it seem more approachable." Evidently, this is a big concern, especially with potential visitors from Asia.

It's hard to overstate the importance of "The Hobbit" on New Zealand's economy in the coming years. The tourism sector employs more people than any other field in the nation. 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).

Unassuming Matamata, for example, was just a blip on the map about two hours south of Auckland before LOTR. Now, 20,000-plus annual visitors head to Hobbiton, the small, emerald-green, farm-cum-hobbit-holed Hollywood set of the LOTR trilogies (which gets extra screen time in "The Hobbit"). The 70-year-old sheep farmer who owns the land still lives there, and his onetime accountant son runs Shire Tours, which recently resumed regular hours for the $50 guided tours after filming of "The Hobbit" wrapped.

Jackson left the wood-and-stone sets intact this time around, but even when there wasn't much to see, thousands of fans still made the pilgrimage to Hobbiton and more than 158 other locations throughout the two main islands -- despite the fact that most shots in the glossy films are digitally manipulated or otherwise enhanced to the point where certain landmarks become unrecognizable.

Yet, if you put a "Welcome to Hobbiton" sign up and add a statue of Gollum to the main drag, people will come, as rural Matamata has proved.

With "The Hobbit" set to become a trilogy, as Jackson stated last month, it offers an even longer period of time for New Zealand to leverage its cross-promotion and build lasting connections with Middle-earth.

"It's a gift that keeps on giving," Bowler enthused. Tour operators, too, couldn't be more thrilled.

"Last time, we were all caught unaware as a multitude of fans descended on our shores," said Heath of Southern Lakes. This time, she said, "we will be ready and waiting."

Tolkien buffs and avid travelers take note: Beginning Dec. 14, the faraway nation of New Zealand will be expecting you -- with slingshots, staffs, and Shire aplenty.