- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2004

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Hobbits, wizards and orcs are helping draw so many tourists to New Zealand that travelers are close to vanquishing dairy farmers as New Zealand’s No. 1 export earners.

The runaway success of local director Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with its panoramas of pristine New Zealand wilderness, combined with the country’s image as a safe haven from the world’s troubles, has helped turn this remote South Pacific nation of 4 million into a must-see location for several million travelers each year.

Dairy farming, the nation’s main foreign-exchange earner for 50 years, is about to be knocked off the top spot by tourist earnings, which are counted as export income.

Strong growth of about 8 percent is expected to lift traveler arrivals to a 12-month figure of 2.2 million by midyear, which would make the sector the nation’s biggest earner, Tourism New Zealand Chief Executive George Hickton told Associated Press.

“New Zealand is carving itself out a niche and has become a hot destination,” Mr. Hickton said, with all its main markets, except Japan, providing growth.

In recent years, the country has deliberately built its tourism appeal around a pristine wild environment combined with adventure tourism ranging from bungee-jumping and white-water rafting to wilderness tramping, whale-watching, parachuting and even Himalayan Thar (mountain goat) hunting.

Indigenous Maori provide a range of cultural experiences, while secluded upmarket lodges regularly rate highly among wealthy travelers.

But the country’s popularity as a vacation destination has soared on the back of the “Rings” films. Research shows 10 percent of tourists say they are attracted to New Zealand partly because of the films, and the buzz associated with the movies can only get stronger now that the last installment in the trilogy — “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” — has won 11 Oscars.

The movies helped showcase the country’s breathtaking scenery as the natural location of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythical Middle-earth. The movies also have inspired tens of thousands of fans of the original books, voted the most-read of the last century, to visit the many filming locations. Dedicated fans even sleep out in fields and forests where special scenes were shot, soaking up the atmosphere they find in such places.

The New Zealand Institute for Economic Research said recently that tourism would be the export sector’s star over the next two years while other exports struggle with a rising New Zealand dollar.

The institute said tourism would continue its strong performance because of expected world economic growth, increased airline seat capacity to New Zealand and the “high international exposure” from the Oscars.

In the 12 months ending June 30, 2002, the latest figures available, New Zealand’s dairy industry earned $4.8 billion for exports of products as varied as plain old butter and high-tech casein, used as “glue” for hamburger patties.

In the 12 months ending September 2003, foreign tourism earned $4.4 billion, and it has been growing strongly since.

Tourism generates nearly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, provides one in 11 jobs and supports more than 15,000 businesses.

Mr. Hickton said being remote from trouble spots and having a “clean, green” image is attracting visitors who are doing more things while in the country.

“There’s a lot more to see and do in New Zealand now … and people are more inclined to holiday in New Zealand only than to move on to Australia,” Mr. Hickton said.

“And if we don’t have any international upset with viruses or terrorism,” he added, “we certainly see continued strong growth in all our international markets.”

However, the government must ensure that tourism doesn’t damage the pristine environment, which itself draws many of the tourists.

Tourism Minister Mark Burton told a recent conference that the industry needs to strike “a balance between managing the impacts of tourism on the environments of our unique nation and reaping its potential economic benefits.”

That balancing act is highlighted by a dispute on the South Island over plans to build a 7.9-mile cable-car line to carry tourists on a 35-minute journey above forests of a World Heritage-listed park from the alpine resort town Queenstown to a picturesque fjord that draws tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Federated Mountain Clubs President John Wilson warned that the cable car — which would slash travel times to Milford Sound and reduce traffic on the single road leading to the fjord — would “completely destroy” the “fragile subalpine environment” within Fiordland National Park.

The sights of ‘Middle-earth’

Locations in New Zealand used as settings for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy include Wellington,

Matamata, the Putangirua Pinnacles, Mount Victoria, Kaitoke Regional Park, Kahurangi National Park, Chetwood Forest, Canterbury Plains and Mount Ruapehu.

Wellington: New Zealand’s capital city, at the southern end of the North Island; also the setting for the capital of Middle-earth in the “Rings” films.

Auckland: At the northern end of the North Island. The area includes two harbors, beaches and dormant volcanoes such as Rangitoto Island. Location for the TV series “Xena, Warrior Princess.”

Christchurch: On South Island. Gateway to the island’s mountains, river gorges and alpine plains.

Queenstown: On South Island. Resort town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, near ski fields and the Remarkables mountain range; known for adventure tourism such as bungee jumping, white-water rafting and hang gliding and for wineries.

Milford Sound: in Fiordland National Park on South Island, a World Heritage-listed rain-forest park with spectacular rocky fjords, sea and bird life. Accessible from Queenstown.

Maori culture: An 1840 treaty between indigenous Maori and the British was signed at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands — now a popular tourist destination and a National Historic Reserve. In Rotorua in the North Island, you can try the thermal pools, eat Maori food and attend performances of traditional Maori arts.

Young Nicks Head: Spot where Capt. James Cook arrived off New Zealand’s east coast in 1769, east of the Turanganui River mouth, now a National Historic Reserve.

Southern Hemisphere weather: April and May are peak autumn months; June to August is winter; September to November is spring.

New Zealand tourism: Visit www.purenz.com, or call 866/639-9325.

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