Grant Bradley

Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

In search of Middle Earth's magic

Despite some unfavourable publicity, the tourism industry is anticipating a beneficial Hobbit spin-off.

Tourism NZ advertisements appearing around the world make a clear connection with the Hobbit movies. Compare this image of tourists in New Zealand with the one below ... Photo / Supplied
Tourism NZ advertisements appearing around the world make a clear connection with the Hobbit movies. Compare this image of tourists in New Zealand with the one below ... Photo / Supplied

If you subscribe to the old adage about any publicity being good publicity, The Hobbit has had a good week.

Headlines have covered accusations of animal cruelty, a legal stoush between Tolkien's estate and Warner Bros, and a reporter temporarily banned from the red carpet at Wednesday's world premiere.

This is on top of the lingering bitterness over a labour dispute that threatened to disrupt the movies and claims Warner Bros was dictating New Zealand's industrial law.

An actor reportedly coined the term "Hobbit curse" following the early delays in filming.

Tourism NZ chief executive Kevin Bowler is not a subscriber to the "any publicity" maxim and after talking to the agency's offices around the world he's confident few among his several hundred million-strong target audience overseas will have heard of the issues.

"The rest of the world is not taking any notice. They're looking forward to the release of the films.

These are local issues in the main," Bowler says.

Tourism NZ was not focused on this country.

"We're looking at the way a global audience is thinking about New Zealand."

Bowler says the mood here seems similar to how it was in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony last year.

"I think this is like the week before the World Cup. There were people wrangling about traffic issues and this and that basically because they couldn't talk about the rugby because it hadn't started."

Aside from the chaos on the first night, the tournament was widely acclaimed as a success and Bowler is confident the same will be true of the The Hobbit.

"When they see the celebrities arrive on the red carpet in Wellington it will all change," he says.

"I hope New Zealand can rally behind this like we did rally behind the Rugby World Cup ... and take a more positive outlook on it and seize the opportunity and not scratch at the cracks."

The blitz of media coverage, warts and all, was a sign of the importance of the trilogy.

"The fact that they're in the news and they're the top three stories almost every day for the past week shows how important they are."

Tourism NZ's total annual budget is $84 million, about $65 million of which is spent on marketing and the $10 million to promote this country as Middle-Earth is the single biggest campaign.

This includes production of new 100 per cent Middle Earth, 100 per cent Pure New Zealand adverts and paying to have it screened in cinemas in all key markets before The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, and on television in Australia.

It also includes on-line activity, bringing dozens of journalists here and producing video and still images for use by media.

Bowler says that unlike the World Cup, The Hobbit had appeal in growth markets in Asia, including China and the United States and the potential to keep returning incremental benefits over several years.

"This reaches hundreds of millions of people in key markets and, unlike an event like the rugby, this is going to build over two and a half to three years," he says.

"This doesn't have the displacement problems that you experience around a big event."

There are now about one billion international trips taken a year, and he says New Zealand gets 2.6 million of these, a number that has come off high pre-global financial crisis growth rates.

"We're not a mainstream tourist destination by any means, we're a long way away and we trade off the fact that we're exotic and premium."

Among the top 10 markets there was a high interest in visiting, and it was hoped the films would act as a catalyst to move New Zealand higher up the bucket list.

Research following the Lord of the Rings trilogy found that of tourists surveyed then, 6 per cent said the movies were one of the major reasons they visited and 1 per cent said it was the main reason.

Applied to visitor numbers now this could mean as many as 150,000 may be partly or fully attracted by The Hobbit.

Bowler says this could mean another $500 million in spending but he's cautious, saying he had "moderate confidence" in the figure.

"You've got a whole lot of variables that are different today.

"You've got a much higher dollar, we've still got the effects of [the] euro crisis and the GFC but equally we've got new markets that are growing quickly and we know will be interested in the films," he says.

"We've got a moderate level of confidence that we will see upside. This is a way of getting our tourism message more widely and more directly than we could do ourselves."

In addition to Tourism NZ's spending, Warner Bros had committed US$100 million ($122.5 million) to promote The Hobbit around the world. While Warners will concentrate on promoting the film, the trick for Tourism New Zealand is making sure audiences were left in no doubt it was made here.

"If the films were wildly successful but nobody knew they were made in New Zealand that wouldn't do a lot for us."

And if they're not a hit?

Bowler says given Sir Peter Jackson's track record, he is confident they will not bomb.

"We think it's a pretty good bet that these films will be successful.

"If they're not then we can consider our position in the longer term but I think most of the world will want to go and see them."

China is New Zealand's fastest growing tourist market and is the latest target of an interactive online campaign and competition.

Chinese actively considering travel during Chinese New Year in February next year are being targeted and adverts use Tourism New Zealand's Chinese brand ambassador Yao Chen, an actor with 26 million followers on social media site, Weibo. Her wedding in Queenstown earlier this week quickly generated more than 1000 stories in Chinese media.

Bowler says there is high awareness of The Hobbit in China, although he concedes that data can be unreliable.

Commentator and former Air New Zealand executive David Beatson has raised questions about the financial spin off from The Hobbit, based on figures for The Lord of the Rings.

He says advertising and marketing campaigns were "interesting" but unless money could be found for followup contacting potential visitors, the effort could be wasted.

Tourism Holdings chief executive Grant Webster's company has just launched a central North Island visitor experience aimed at tourists using motorhomes.

So far the response from the tourist trade had been enthusiastic.

Webster says any benefit The Hobbit could provide was welcome.

"The Hobbit is not going to suddenly convert people in my view," he says. "However, it absolutely will raise New Zealand's profile and allows us the chance to get in behind it and say New Zealand is a great place to travel."


Filling seats in theatres and planes

*Research conducted by Tourism NZ in key markets in May to July found 57 per cent of people considering a trip to NZ were aware of The Hobbit trilogy.

*Of those aware of the films, 87 per cent know they were filmed in New Zealand and 58 per cent are fans of The Hobbit.

*The International Visitor Survey from 2004, after the release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, found that 6 per cent of visitors to New Zealand named it as being one of the main reasons for visiting New Zealand.

*One per cent of visitors said that The Lord of the Rings was their main or only reason for visiting. This related to approximately $32.8 million in spending.

*In 2004, 63,200 visitors participated in a Lord of the Rings activity while here.

*Since 2004, an average 47,000 visitors each year have visited a film location.

*Visitors attracted by The Hobbit could be worth $500 million to the economy.

- NZ Herald

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