A record number of tourists on a pilgrimage to J R R Tolkien's Middle-earth are expected in the once sleepy Waikato dairying town of Matamata.
The numbers through the iSite door are expected to double to about 400,000 in the coming year after the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Wellington on November 28 and the general release of the film on December 12.
Sue Whiting, manager of the Matamata Public Relations Association, which runs the iSite tourist information centre, said the town now knew what to expect with the release of a Tolkien movie, having enjoyed three films in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
She expected the first of the new Tolkien prequel trilogy to break the 2004 record of 360,000 visitors to Matamata and edge close to 400,000.
"We went from an average of about 50,000 visitors a year, before the first of the Lord of the Rings films in 2001, to a record of 360,000, the year after Return of the King in 2004," she said. "Now it's about 200,000 a year.
"We have never really stopped since then and there's massive interest in the new movie."
Matamata-Piako District Mayor Hugh Vercoe said the expected visitor numbers were fantastic, but he doubted the people of Matamata were prepared for the crowds. "Whenever people used to come here, they would always want their photo taken just in front of the sign. Now I imagine even more people will want their picture in front of the new gateway; it will be tremendously iconic.
"I don't think the town fully appreciates the numbers that will come through, but it will certainly be good for them. It's definitely exciting."
The town's economy has been boosted in the past few years by set-builders who have worked on returning the Hobbiton set on the sheep farm owned by the Alexander family near Matamata to a film-ready condition. The veil of secrecy around the movie set - which attracts hundreds of visitors a day - has finally been lifted.
Hobbiton's hobbit holes, which were stripped to plywood shells when the Rings film crew left a decade ago, have been restored to their former glory for The Hobbit trilogy.
Jackson, who has a 50/50 share in the business alongside the Alexander family, has also enlarged the set with additional Hobbit holes, making 44 in all.
Hobbiton's lakeside pub, The Green Dragon, was rebuilt for The Hobbit after being burned to the ground for The Return of the King. After punters finish their tour of the set, they will be able to enjoy a swift beer in the pub. Fairfax NZ
- The Dominion Post
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