A decade ago, Matamata was a sleepy country town in the middle of North Island, New Zealand , well-placed for travellers in need of a comfort stop and a takeaway snack. David Barber
Today it is better known as Hobbiton and is one of the country’s star tourist destinations, attracting 1.9 million visitors over the last 10 years. It is poised for a fresh invasion driven by the release of Peter Jackson’s new film and prequel to his Lord of the Rings blockbuster, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opened in cinemas over the holidays to record-breaking audiences.
It all began in 1998 when movie director Jackson took to the sky in a small plane in search of sites to film his planned trilogy of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. His target was a piece of countryside untouched by concrete buildings, power poles and roads that he could transform into Hobbiton, the primitive village home of Tolkien’s small, hairy Hobbit people. A family farm outside Matamata, set about halfway between the provincial capital, Hamilton and the tourist city of Rotorua, and complete with Tolkien’s so-called Party Tree and a lake proved perfect.
It was just one of more than 100 locations he used around the country but, uniquely, the only one to survive the complete destruction of all sets the producers ordered to protect intellectual property and copyright. The absence of anything to see at the rest of the sites has not stopped fans who want to visit places where the movies were filmed. A guide book to Rings’ locations has sold 500,000 copies and tourist operators know exactly where the Hobbits walked and the battles were fought.
As the only surviving set, Hobbiton became the focus for visiting fans of the cult fantasies, even though it had been largely dismantled to a “ghost Hobbiton”. The number of visitors at the Matamata tourist information office went from about 50,000 visitors a year to 260,000 in 2004, when the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy hit the screens, says manager Sue Whiting. All want to photograph the large “Welcome to Hobbiton” sign on the road into what Whiting says was “a little rural town – now we are a major tourist centre.”
Whiting says the Hobbiton set was completely rebuilt last year for the filming of The Hobbit movies and now remains exactly how it appears on screen, complete with 44 Hobbit holes, the Green Dragon pub, a mill, double-arched bridge and the famous Party Tree. There may be little to see at the other end of the country, in the South Island’s stunning scenic mountain lakes region where many of The Lord of the Rings’ most dramatic action scenes were filmed, but a host of tour companies will take visitors there anyway – by bus, helicopter, four-wheel drive or on horseback.
“We can prove 100 per cent that we have taken you to the exact locations used in the trilogy and with weapons and costumes to handle, what more could you want?” boasts a spokesman for Lord of the Rings Tours. In Wellington, or “Wellywood,” Oscar-winning Richard Taylor’s Weta Digital Effects company, which created the remarkable characters and props of the Rings and Hobbit films, gives a behind-the-scenes look in the Weta Cave Museum. Everyone is cashing in on the Tolkien-inspired cult.
New Zealand Post has launched a series of Hobbit-inspired stamps and coins and Air New Zealand’s new Hobbit-themed in-flight safety video has become a worldwide hit with more than six million YouTube views in just four days after it was launched.