In the fall of 2002, my wife and I touched down in New Zealand - having made the decision several months earlier to sell everything we owned and uproot our lives for some distant shores. While the choice to go Kiwi was more a matter of random happenstance, job security, and recommendations by friends, it goes without saying that viewing Peter Jackson's "Fellowship of the Ring" in December 2001 certainly sold us.
"You can argue that Lord of the Rings was the best unpaid advertisement that New Zealand has ever had," Bruce Lahood, US and Canada regional manager for Tourism New Zealand said in 2006. "In the last decade New Zealand has been the most successful country to benefit from movie tourism. We've been looked at and case-studied from many angles."
While New Zealand has long been known as a natural heaven on earth, Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy exposed its scenic vistas to an unparalleled audience. Annual tourist influx to New Zealand jumped from 1.7 million in 2000 to 2.6 million today, a 40 percent surge.
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Officials are banking on another surge in interest with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three prequel films to the "Rings" trilogy, hitting in December.
“It is a very big deal,” Gregg Anderson, who oversees Tourism New Zealand campaigns in North America and Europe told NBC News. “We really are hoping that we will see a lift in visitor arrivals in the two-and-a-half-plus years that this will run for.”
To capitalize on the coming surge, tourism officials have stepped up the cross-promotions with the long-running slogan of "100% Pure New Zealand" now expanded with "100% Middle Earth, 100% Pure New Zealand."
"The biggest attraction we have is the scenery," Anderson said. "These films just take that scenery and put it on a big screen and show it at its stunning best."
Check out a promo video for Air New Zealand featuring Peter Jackson and some familiar characters from Middle Earth. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" hits theaters December 14th.