New Zealand basks under Middle-earth sun

Once again, much of the country has been caught up in Middle-earth movie mania, as Wellington hosts the world premiere of Peter Jackson's first film in The Hobbit trilogy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey screened last night in the capital, which exhibited all the trappings of Hollywood as the red carpet was laid out, the stars came out, and tens of thousands flocked downtown to revel in the atmosphere. The scenes in the capital were reminiscent of the previous Australasian premieres of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and the world premiere of The Return of The King, and city hotels were booked out in advance as fans from throughout the country and the world travelled there to be part of the occasion.

Many other New Zealanders have been caught up in The Hobbit hype, watching proceedings online and keeping up to date with news feeds - and eagerly anticipating the movie's release nationwide with midnight screenings on December 12. The fact Sir Peter Jackson and his production crew, including the Weta Workshop and Weta Digital teams, have attracted worldwide acclaim and many awards for their adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's globally respected works - and attracted high-profile international actors to the movies - speaks volumes for their vision, determination and abilities.

Whether The Hobbit movies will justify the hype is almost irrelevant as, for many New Zealanders, the movies, just like The Lord of The Rings trilogy before them, appear to symbolise much more.

The films offer a chance to put the spotlight on ourselves - our stunning landscape, our Kiwi ingenuity, innovation, creativity, technical ability and our work ethic - all of which will be showcased on a world stage, but also contribute significantly to our own sense of pride and identity.

The movies are something many average Kiwis are proud about and want to be part of - and their production has also actively involved many individuals and communities throughout the country. The latest advertisement for the film is certainly promoting that "feel-good factor" for all, proclaiming "and the award for best supporting country in a motion picture goes to ... New Zealand" and highlighting the communities and individuals which contributed to the movie.

J.R.R. Tolkien's great-grandson Royd, in the capital for the screening, has also helped the movie's - and the country's - cause, saying the New Zealand landscape provided a "perfect match" for the setting of the books: "It kind of rekindles that magic I had back when I was 9 when I read [the books]."

And it is exactly that magic Tourism New Zealand is hoping to leverage off as it links The Hobbit and Middle-earth with its 100% Pure New Zealand brand and works to convert the international attention New Zealand will draw from the movies into visitor numbers. It believes the tourism benefits of the trilogy are considerable and long-lasting, based on the ability of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to continue to attract visitors to New Zealand in the wake of those films.

Its "International Visitor Survey" statistics from 2004, completed following the release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, found 6% of visitors to New Zealand (120,000-150,000 people) cited The Lord of the Rings as one of the main reasons for visiting New Zealand, 1% said it was their main or sole reason for visiting. It said the 1% related to about $32.8 million in spending. Local communities also continue to reap the benefits of those films with Queenstown and Middlemarch now preparing to capitalise on parts of The Hobbit being filmed there.

Of course, amid the excitement, number crunching and back-slapping, there are also serious questions remaining about whether the country should engage in a "bidding war" to attract further big-budget movies, given the criticisms of the $67 million in tax rebates provided for The Hobbit films, and allegations over workers' rights and animal treatment during production of The Hobbit films.

The spotlight needs to be shone on such issues, for the great gains the country can clearly make from such high-profile screen time should not come at the expense of rights and responsibilities. But for this week at least the country is basking in the media spotlight - and focused on showing its best side to a global audience of millions.