A record number of tourists on a pilgrimage to JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth are expected in the once sleepy Waikato dairying town of Matamata.
The numbers through the i-SITE door are expected to double to around 400,000 in the coming year following the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Part 1 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 i-SITE 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 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 "absolutely fantastic", but doubted the people of Matamata were truly 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," he said.
Set builders, returning the Hobbiton movie set on the Alexander sheep farm near Matamata to a film-ready condition over the past few years, had helped boost the town's economy.
The veil of secrecy, around the movie set which attracts hundreds of visitors per day, has finally been lifted.
Hobbiton, whose hobbit holes were stripped to plywood shells when the Rings film crew left a decade ago, has been restored to its former glory for The Hobbit trilogy.
Jackson, who has a 50/50 share in the business alongside the Alexander family who own the land, has also enlarged the set with additional Hobbit holes making 44 in all.
"About five years ago Peter Jackson said he wanted to make The Hobbit and said he wanted to come back and rebuild Hobbiton and we entered a joint venture with him," Russell Alexander, general manager of Hobbiton, said. "We had to get it looking like the 1700s."
"There will be a bit of an influx of visitors," Mr Alexander said. "We want to have The Green Dragon pub open for the premiere."
From Hobbiton's lakeside pub, rebuilt for The Hobbit after being burned to the ground for The Return of the King, punters will be able to enjoy a swift beer as they conclude their tour of the set.
The new, improved, Hobbiton employs around 50 staff including 10 gardeners.
- Waikato Times