Dec. 13, 2012 at 11:52 AM ET
New Zealand has been very, very good to film director Peter Jackson and all his movies about hobbits and orcs, elves and wizards. Now the Pacific island nation is hoping that "The Hobbit" will be very, very good for tourism.
The "Lord of the Rings" movies were filmed exclusively in New Zealand and put together at Jackson's moviemaking complex in Wellington, which has been nicknamed "Wellywood" as a tribute to Hollywood. New Zealand's government reportedly kicked in NZ$150 million to support the LOTR project, and has contributed more than $100 million for "The Hobbit."
Tourism New Zealand is spending another $10 million to promote the "Hobbit" connection, anticipating that film fans will flock to the places they've seen on the big screen. There's some data to back that up: A 2004 government-backed survey determined that 6 percent of New Zealand's visitors cited "The Lord of the Rings" as one of the main reasons for coming.
"A similar level of interest in 'The Hobbit' ... would in today's terms equate to an additional 150,000 visitors, and on average expenditure of NZ$3000 per visitor, that would be somewhere between $400 million and $500 million for the New Zealand economy," Tourism New Zealand's Deborah Gray said in an email.
Although the movie is the hot topic right now, there's more to New Zealand than hobbit holes. After all, this is the place where commercial bungee jumping got its start. Here are five jumping-off points worth considering:
Almost a third of New Zealand's 4.4 million people live in Auckland, the country's top travel gateway and most cosmopolitan city. A hop-on, hop-off bus takes you around to the Auckland Zoo, shopping districts, Kelly Tarlton's Sea Life Aquarium (with penguins!), 1,076-foot Sky Tower (with observation deck and revolving restaurant) and the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Don't miss the museum's Maori cultural performance, and look into day trips to nature preserves or Maori villages.
Welcome to the "Middle of Middle Earth." The Weta Cave is as close as most people can get to Peter Jackson's filmmaking empire, but don't expect more than a gift shop, mini-museum and a mini-documentary that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process. Some city tours focus on hobbit hot spots – including Mount Victoria, which provided several of the woodsy settings for "The Lord of the Rings." Other hot spots include the Te Papa museum, the Zealandia nature sanctuary, the Botanic Garden and the action on Cuba Street.
This resort town sits on the shore of the country's biggest lake. The southern summer is prime time for tourists: Take a riverside hike to Huka Falls or just go trout fishing. If you're in the mood for a drive, you can head southeast to Hawke's Bay, north to Rotorua (the closest thing in New Zealand to Yellowstone), west to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves or south to Tongariro National Park. (But watch out for Mount Doom.)
New Zealand's South Island is where you can really get into the Misty Mountains ... or Isengard, or Rohan, or Ithilien. The area around Queenstown provided lots of exotic-looking locales for the "Lord of the Rings" movies. The city also serves as the jumping-off point for boat excursions on beautiful Milford Sound and for one of the world's best-known hiking trails, the Milford Track. Oh, and did I mention the bungee jumping?
The South Island's largest city and the gateway to Antarctica, Christchurch is the oldest established city in New Zealand and has a classic English look. That look was somewhat spoiled by earthquakes that hit the city hard in 2010 and 2011, but the Botanic Gardens and other sights still hold plenty of charm. Christchurch is a good jumping-off point for places like Dunedin, where you can actually see penguins in the wild. Now that's something Frodo's pal Sam Gamgee might enjoy seeing even more than the fabled "Oliphaunt."