Dec. 11, 2011, MATAMATA, New Zealand -- Ian Alexander remembers the day well. He was watching a rugby match on TV when a knock came at the door. He opened it to find a location scout seeking permission to film scenes from Lord of the Rings on his sprawling sheep farm.
"I said, 'Lord of the what? I'm just a bloody old broken-down farmer with a few sheep running around,' " Alexander recalls.
Flash-forward a dozen years or so, and Alexander, 70, is still on the farm. Except the old wool shed has been converted into the Shire's Rest restaurant. And 20,000-plus visitors (some of whom speak Elvish) annually trudge through the lush emerald-green undulations of his 1,250-acre farm. And his son, Russell, a onetime accountant, is now general manager of Shire Tours.
The movie people came calling again recently, seeking to reprise the farm's role as the Shire in two upcoming Hobbit movies (set for release in 2012 and 2013). Filming has wrapped at the site, and visitors are once again being allowed into Hobbiton, as it's known. All who enter must sign a non-disclosure agreement (under threat of a kajillion-dollar lawsuit and the sacrifice of a child or two).
But suffice it to say, the land is now riddled with fanciful Hobbit dwellings. Producer/director Peter Jackson, who owns a 50% share of the attraction, has left the sets intact, unlike after the previous filming, when all that remained were the unadorned facades of 17 Hobbit holes. There wasn't much to see, but fans flocked anyway.
Jackson's first three boffo-at-the-box-office films (they grossed almost $3 billion) based on the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy trilogy feature 158 locations in New Zealand. In many instances, those locales were digitally manipulated or otherwise enhanced so as to be unrecognizable in their natural state.
No matter. The LOTR franchise is partially responsible for a tourism windfall in this island nation 9,000 air miles from New York. Global visitor numbers are up 40% since 2000. At least five official LOTR-themed tour companies are in operation. And TheLord of the Rings Location Guidebook has sold 500,000 copies, making it one of the country's best-selling non-fiction titles.
Shearing off that sheepish image
Most important, perhaps, outsiders' perceptions of the country changed.
"It's not just about sheep anymore," says Gisella Carr, chief executive of Film New Zealand. "A movie was able to shift the way people thought about New Zealand. And that's remarkable."
Tourism officials are confident the new Hobbit films will draw a fresh round of Middle-earth enthusiasts. Fans will have to wait for specifics on locales, however, given the hush-hush nature of the project. A no-fly zone was imposed over Alexander's farm during filming, for instance.
But even a decade after the release of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, locals tell tales of hard-core "ringers" arriving at former film sites dressed as cook-pot-toting elves. One guide escorted a group of 60 Japanese fans decked out as Hobbits. A young American woman bought an 18-karat-gold copy of the One Ring, hired a helicopter to fly her over a volcanic peak in Tongariro National Park (Mount Doom in the movie), and flung the ring out, relates Halfdan Hansen. His late father, Jens, created for the films the ring that is central to the story. The Jens Hansen Gold and Silversmith store in Nelson has become a tourist venue, thanks to its LOTR connection. Plus, they still get plenty of orders for replica rings ($2,700 in 18-karat gold; $150 for silver).
On the South Island, near Queenstown, Shayle Thompson, a guide with Dart River Jet Safaris, notes, "I've met people who speak Elvish (the language of Tolkien's elves) and think New Zealand is Middle-earth. So you just say, 'Well, whatever.' But it puts a smile on your face, doesn't it?"
Welcome to Middle-earth
In fact, this country does possess a fantastical Middle-earth-like quality. With its rugged mountains, glacial valleys, bubbling geysers and giant fern trees, it exudes a primeval quality. Pine trees grow at more than twice the rate here as elsewhere in the world. Eighty percent of its native flora is found nowhere else. It has no native land mammals, save for two bat species. And yes, the 30 million or so sheep vastly outnumber New Zealand's 4.4 million residents.
"If you take the lake out, it's just as Tolkien described Isengard," muses Ian Brodie, author of The LOTR Location Guidebook, from a roadside perch south of Queenstown.
The snow-capped Remarkables, a mountain range whose name doesn't exaggerate, rise above Lake Wakatipu and figure in LOTR scenes. Brodie occasionally leads tours to key shooting sites, sprinkling his commentary with behind-the-scenes tidbits garnered from his turn as a Gondorian bread seller in the final film. (Frodo's movie double is a chain-smoking Sri Lankan dwarf "who drinks far too much beer and has a lot of fun," for instance.)
An hour from Queenstown, John and Toni Glover dish out savory Thai pumpkin soup, homemade pâté and other delicious, locally sourced fare at their rustic lakefront Kinloch Lodge. The number of visitors drawn here due to its proximity to LOTR film sites is surprising, Toni Glover says. "It's still very much front of mind."
But a greater number come to fish for trout, hike the famed Routeburn Track or just hang out, she adds.
Likewise, customers on Nomad Safari's Safari of the Scenes tours might do a double-take at the spot in the Arrow River that represented LOTR's Ford of Bruinen. But what they'll remember is the off-roading experience in scenic and historic gold-mining country. Or the adrenalin-pumped bungee jumpers leaping off the nearby Kawarau Bridge.
On the other hand, before the movies, few tourists had cause to venture to tiny Matamata, 100 miles south of Auckland. These days, there's a "Welcome to Hobbiton" sign and a statue of Gollum on the main drag. Wizards routinely show up and nobody bats an eye, says Sue Whiting, manager of the town's Public Relations Association.
"It's brought people (about 200,000 annually) from all over the world to our little town," she says
Over at the Shire's Rest, Alexander, dressed in short shorts and a battered hat, acknowledges, "It's all been quite unreal."
He finally got around to seeing a couple of the LOTR movies. "But to be honest, I haven't seen the third one," he says. "Been too busy sheep farming."