Tourism hopes hang on The Hobbit

ALAN WOOD
Last updated 05:00 19/05/2012

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Shudderomg, broken buildings, bloodied, terrified people, swarms of orange-jacketed rescuers probing huge piles of concrete for signs of life, these were the images of February 22's earthquake that beamed around the world last year.

And after every major aftershock in the past year there have been more pictures of destruction.

Little wonder that international tourists are giving the region and the South Island a wide berth. How does an industry recover when its lifeblood, international tourists, has shrunk massively?

The ripples have spread through the South Island and reached across Cook Strait into the north too.

Last month Finance Minister Bill English said the tourism sector in his own Clutha, Southland, electorate was "on its knees".

While some North Island operators report business as usual, thanks largely to the Rugby World Cup last year, others say the earthquake imagery continues to disrupt.

Operators around the country have seen changes to visitor arrival patterns and some have put off capital spending or held off on making any expensive changes.

Rotorua's Kay Clarke says her central North Island clients, a range of tourism operators, have certainly been hurt.

Her Stay and Play NZ Tourism Connections business has 46 clients in businesses ranging from accommodation, lake cruising to fly fishing adventures, with many reporting traveller numbers have dropped off.

Her team helped to market and promote these clients to Australia, Europe, the Americas and Asia, putting them in touch with wholesale buyers in these markets who bring tourists direct to the operators.

Clarke says the Canterbury earthquakes have "absolutely" impacted her clients in several ways. For some it's having to change itineraries on tours. For others it is much more.

The perception that the whole of New Zealand was damaged is a real issue.

"Some of that is ongoing. Even when there is a little shake, sometimes the international media are showing old footage.

"We're hearing even from some of the people at Trenz that it's still impacting on their businesses. It therefore impacts on ours."

The industry is made up of hundreds of small businesses. Some were noticeably downbeat at the Trenz tourism industry conference in Queenstown last week but they are looking for a silver lining to their troubles.

All around the conference centre were billboards of the upcoming Hobbit films, one to be released at the end of this year and the second 12 months later.

This is the great hope of the industry – hope that it will set off a pilgrimage of tourists to New Zealand and showcase the glorious scenery and leisure and adventure options this small country can offer, just as the Lord of the Rings films did 12 years ago.

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Tourism New Zealand chief executive Kevin Bowler says a plan to promote New Zealand off the images of the new Hobbit movies will be backed by a $65 million marketing budget for the 2012-13 year.

The Government marketing entity is brimming with optimism about how The Hobbit will elevate New Zealand's promotional efforts overseas, as did The Lord of the Rings.

Some at Trenz were hyped up enough to wish for tourism to bump off the other larger export earner, the dairy industry, from the top spot.

Dairying brings in about $11.5 billion of annual earnings.

At the moment, New Zealand's tourism industry is worth $9.7 billion in foreign spending a year, it keeps nearly 180,000 people in jobs and makes an 8.6 per cent contribution to gross domestic product.

So the hype behind The Hobbit has begun. And the timing couldn't be better, given the fallout from the quakes. There are projections being offered of the significant opportunities around The Hobbit films.

For instance, visitors would be drawn to Matamata, a dairy country town, where the main outside movie set is based and called Hobbiton.

Wellington, where Sir Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films is headquartered, is bound to lure the overseas crowd and the rest of the country by association, the tourism experts say.

Bowler has been in talks with Warner Brothers and Wingnut over the The Hobbit films, and has an agreement to brand New Zealand "home of Middle-Earth".

Tourism NZ brand general manager Catherine Bates says "film tourism" opportunities will start firing with the first film's release.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features the breathtaking scenery of Lake Pukaki, Braemar Station, Tekapo, Glenorchy and Fiordland and will have its world premiere in Wellington on December 13.

The Hobbit: There and Back Again will be released 12 months later.

So the industry is crossing its fingers that the drama of mountains and wilderness will draw offshore eyes from December onwards, rather than recycled quake footage.

"With The Hobbit movies we see it as a great opportunity to highlight New Zealand, not only the place to visit and a great tourism destination, which is our key role, but with other NZ Inc partners it is a great place to do business and also a great place for film production," Bates says.

Film tourism is an international phenomena, she says.

The year after the Mel Gibson-directed Braveheart was released there was a 300 per cent increase in visitors to the Wallace Monument in Scotland.

Hobbiton movie set and farm tours general manager Russell Alexander says every day of the year his joint venture business with Jackson hosts tours of the expanding location including Bag End and the Green Dragon Inn. The farm-based film set has been built to last for 50 years and can cater for up to 11 tours a day.

Film NZ chairman Julian Grimmond says New Zealand has also grown as a destination for film-makers with the film business worth $3.2 billion a year and people such as James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar, wanting to call the country home.

"It's a significant business but what is actually interesting about this is that it has grown out of what we call the business tourism around film."

Sir Richard Taylor, of Weta Workshop fame, recently told him there were now 100,000 visitors a year to the workshops and museum in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, Grimmond says.

Bowler says total arrivals into New Zealand in the year to March 31 were up 4.4 per cent from the previous corresponding year, but that the North Island had probably benefited more than the South.

Many visitors arriving in Auckland for two or three nights in New Zealand would only move on to a destination like Rotorua, giving the South Island a complete miss.

"I think the North Island has benefited, but it's not just the quakes. I think we're also seeing a mix change, so we're seeing more visitors from Asia."

Not all Trenz exhibitors saw Christchurch's seismic upheaval as a total negative.

Napier city's battle back from the devastation of the February 1931 earthquake is a tale of recovery says John Cocking, who acts as art deco ambassador for Napier with the pseudonym Clarence Bertram St John Fitz Montague, or Bertie for short.

The rebuild from that carnage gave the city a strong art deco theme. Napier's Art Deco Trust is now in charge of protecting that heritage built in a relatively short time under the guidance of a "lawyer and engineer given tremendous powers", rather than the council.

"The quake not only changed the city centre, because we had to rebuild the whole thing, but also the geography of Hawke's Bay," he said.

That signals hope for Christchurch.

International guest nights in the year to December 2011 compared with the year to December 2010:

Canterbury province: -36%

South Island: -13%

North Island: +7% N

ew Zealand: -3%

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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