Yes, The Lord of the Rings films delivered an enormous surge of travelers to New Zealand in the early 2000s. But tourism here has been booming since the 1980s—for a very good reason.
Some would blame the hobbits. When you consider the popularity of this modest little island, it’s easy to assume it’s all the fault of those hairy-footed characters that so famously rove New Zealand’s wilds. Even Elijah Wood, The Hobbit himself, once declared: “There’s a real purity in New Zealand that doesn’t exist in the States. It’s actually not an easy thing to find in our world anymore.”
So why not attribute the country’s fame to a huge film franchise and some mind-bendingly beautiful scenery? Ever since the first The Lord of the Rings film was released in 2001, tourists have been flocking to New Zealand to experience Middle-earth, to see if the real place could possibly match up to the beautiful images on screen.
Spoiler alert: It could.
Tourism went crazy in New Zealand in the early 2000s. Visitor numbers jumped almost 12 per cent in 2004 alone, with more than 2.3 million arrivals. Those visitors came on a quest—not to destroy a ring, but to experience a destination, to visit film sets and locations, and enjoy the natural beauty of this amazing place.
If you can jump off it, slide down it, or race along it, there’s a very good chance you can do it in New Zealand.
For most tourists, that was what New Zealand was all about, and there’s no doubt that Hobbit tourism remains. People still visit fictional Hobbiton. They still do tours of The Lord of the Rings locations.
“New Zealand feels like you took all the best bits of Canada and squished them onto a tiny island,” attested Canadian actor Evangeline Lilly—who played Tauriel in The Hobbit—way back in 2012. But now, over a decade after the first The Lord of the Rings film, you might expect the original rush of film nuts to have died off or—at the very least—to have slowed to a trickle.
But it hasn’t. It’s gotten crazier. Visitor numbers have grown almost every year—there might have been 2.3 million arrivals to New Zealand in 2004, but last year there were 3.5 million. And more than half were for tourism. The Kiwi government estimates that by 2023, there will be 4.9 million overseas arrivals. That’s more than New Zealand’s entire population.
So, what is it with New Zealand? Why is it so attractive to tourists? If you can’t blame the hobbits, what do you put the nation’s insane popularity down to?
In short, it’s adventure. Of course, there might be a few other factors at play here—the friendly people, the spectacular scenery, the wine regions, the infrastructure the good food, and the great coffee—but adventure is what New Zealand does best. If you can jump off it, slide down it, or race along it, there’s a very good chance you can do it in New Zealand. And you can do it well.
Even John Travolta, who has nothing to do with the The Lord of the Rings love-in (as far as we know) can’t get enough of Queenstown, the adventure hub on the country’s South Island. “Whenever I get stressed, I just want to hop on a plane to Queenstown,” he once said.
Queenstown is the home of the world’s first commercial bungy-jumping site, the Kawarau Bridge, and there are now no less than three places in the area to jump off something with just an elastic band for safety. There’s more to it too; jet-boating, snowboarding, mountain-biking, sky-diving—not to mention world-class rafting, off-roading, paragliding and zip-lining.
“I think Kiwis are almost born with an intrinsic motivation to discover and explore because our country is so isolated. We love an adventure, and I think our willingness to explore new places and challenge the limits has carried through the generations.”
Braden Currie, endurance athlete
As if Queenstown wasn’t enough, there are plenty of other, similarly adventurous places throughout the country. Think of Mount Cook, where mountaineering is the thing (much thanks to the legacy of one Sir Edmund Hillary). Think of Nelson, where it’s all about kayaking and hiking. Or Lake Taupo, where it’s mountain-biking and watersports. And Rotorua, where it’s hot springs and bike trails or Milford Sound, where people flock for the extensive multi-day hiking tracks and awe-inducing boat rides.
The Kiwis just love adventure—they do it right, and they’ve been doing it right for a long time. There’s something about the New Zealand psyche that has them pushing limits, that has them setting records. Just ask Braden Currie, a Kiwi Ironman who’s a three-time World Multisport Champion and spends a lot of time outdoors: “I think Kiwis are almost born with an intrinsic motivation to discover and explore because our country is so isolated,” he says. “We love an adventure, and I think our willingness to explore new places and challenge the limits has carried through the generations.
It makes sense, when you think about their history. The first person to set foot on the summit of Everest, the world’s highest mountain, was Sir Hillary—a Kiwi. The pioneer of bungy jumping as a commercial sport was AJ Hackett—a Kiwi. It was another New Zealander, Geoff Barnett, who invented the ‘Shweeb,’ a cycle-powered monorail that tourists can check out in Rotorua. Kiwis also created the jet-boat—an activity available up and down the country—as well as the Zorb, a giant inflatable ball that you stand inside before rolling down a hill. Give it a try in Rotorua or the Bay of Plenty.
If you love to climb mountains, you can go to New Zealand. If you love to ski down them, you can go to New Zealand. If you love road trips on wide, open roads with minimal traffic, you can go to New Zealand. If you love to cycle on hardcore, single-track mountain-biking trails or just to pootle along on your bicycle on an old rail trail through wine country, you can go to New Zealand. “Driving from one place to another, you just can’t avoid stopping the car to soak in the scenery,” says Currie. “Things change so quickly within less than an hour’s drive, and every place has its own character. You could spend a year in New Zealand and still feel like you’ve missed out.”
And best of all, you get all this adventure and adrenaline in relative safety. You can do it in a country that has avoided brushes with terrorism or any global political strife (they even became the first country to give women the vote, back in 1893). You can do it in a country with an exemplary safety record, where operators are monitored and guidelines are adhered to. You can do it in a country that embraces and is proud of their indigenous Maori heritage. You can do it in a friendly, welcoming place full of laid-back folk—who just happen to like jumping off things.
That’s why visitor numbers are going crazy into New Zealand. That’s why people love it. This place is adventure, personified. And it’s got a lot more going for it than hobbits.
Sir Edmund Hillary once said: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better summation of the Kiwi psyche and what it is about New Zealand that travelers find so attractive.