Wellington - A decade ago, Matamata was a sleepy country town in the middle of New Zealand's North Island well-placed for travellers in need of a comfort stop and a takeaway snack.
Today, it is better known as Hobbiton and is one of the country's star tourist destinations, attracting 1.9 million visitors over the last 10 years. It is poised for a fresh invasion starting this Christmas which seems certain to top that number over the next decade.
It all began in 1998 when movie director Peter Jackson took to the sky in a small plane in search sites to film his planned trilogy of JRR Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings.
His target was a piece of countryside untouched by concrete buildings, power poles and roads that he could transform into Hobbiton, the primitive village home of Tolkien's small, hairy, Hobbit people.
A family farm outside Matamata, set about halfway between the provincial capital, Hamilton, and the tourist city of Rotorua, and complete with Tolkien's so-called “party tree” and a lake, proved perfect.
It was just one of more than 100 locations he used around the country, but uniquely the only one to survive the complete destruction of all sets the producers ordered to protect intellectual property and copyright.
The absence of anything to see at the rest of the sites did not stop fans who wanted to visit places where the movies were filmed. A guide book to Rings' locations has sold 500,000 copies and tourist operators know exactly where the hobbits walked and the battles were fought.
As the only surviving set, Hobbiton became the focus for visiting fans of the cult fantasies, even though it had been largely dismantled to a “ghost Hobbiton.”
The number of visitors at the Matamata tourist information office went from about 50,000 visitors a year to 260,000 in 2004, when the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy hit the screens, manager Sue Whiting told dpa.
All want to photograph the large “Welcome to Hobbiton” sign on the road into what Whiting said was “a little rural town - now we are a major tourist centre.”
Matamata is poised for a fresh rush of fans once Jackson's new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, opens in cinemas around the world next month after its premiere in Wellington on November 28.
Whiting said the Hobbiton set was completely rebuilt last year for the filming of The Hobbit movies, and now remains exactly how it will be seen on screen, complete with 44 Hobbit holes, the Green Dragon pub, a mill, double-arched bridge and the famous Party tree.
There may be little to see at the other end of the country, in the South Island's stunning scenic mountain lakes region, where many of The Lord of the Rings' most dramatic action scenes were filmed, but a host of tour companies will take visitors there anyway - by bus, helicopter, four-wheel drive or on horseback.
“We can prove 100 per cent that we have taken you to the exact locations used in the trilogy and with weapons and costume to handle, what more could you want?” boasts Lord of the Rings Tours.
“Walk in the footsteps of Frodo and Sam from the lush green Shirelands into forests, across rivers and even to the twisted lava and ash fields of the Black Land itself. Along the way you'll easily recognize the sites of epic battles, and imagine you still hear the thudding of horses' hooves, the clash of swords,” Red Carpet Tours company tempts fans.
In Wellington, or “Wellywood,” Oscar-winning Richard Taylor's Weta Digital Effects company, which created the remarkable characters and props of the Rings and Hobbit films, gives a behind-the-scenes look in the Weta Cave Museum.
Everyone is cashing in on the Tolkien-inspired cult. New Zealand Post has launched a series of Hobbit-inspired stamps and coins and Air New Zealand's new Hobbit-themed in-flight safety video was a global hit, with more than 6 million YouTube views in the four days after it was launched. - Sapa-dpa