Cultural Tourism: New Zealand and the 100% Middle-earth campaign

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The following is an essay written by Virginia Streit as part of course work for her Master of Communication degree.

 

In August 2012 Tourism New Zealand unveiled its 100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand campaign in the lead up to the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s new movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in a series of three films to be released based on JRRR Tolkien’s novel. The campaign visualises New Zealand not just as the shooting location of the film, but as the ‘real Middle-earth’; a promise of a holiday adventure of epic proportions targeting fans and potential tourists across the globe.

 

According to Tourism New Zealand, in 2004, the year after the release of the last film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, six percent of visitors to New Zealand said that the Lord of the Rings films was one of the main reasons for their trip and since then an average of 47,000 international visitors each year have visited one of these film locations (Tourism New Zealand 2013).

 

Furthermore, tourism plays an important role in New Zealand’s economy. In the financial year ending in March 2012, tourism generated a direct contribution of $6.2 billion to the nation’s GDP, equating to 3.3%, with an indirect value added through other industries generating an addition $9.7 billion for tourism (Statistics New Zealand 2012). With no other country able to market itself as the world’s most famous cinematic fantasy land, Tourism New Zealand leveraged the building hype over The Hobbit to give their new campaign a unique and exotic angle.

 

Central to the campaign is a series of images used on New Zealand’s destination website and other promotional material, which show landscapes identifiable with the film (and the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy, also set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also filmed in New Zealand). The photographs denote possible activities visitors can undertake, such as hiking, horse riding, wine tasting, swimming and cycling, while viewing breath-taking scenery. These images are intercut with sketches of scenes from the film, cleverly created to be able to be overlayed across the photographs, giving the viewer the sense that they are of the same landscape. The juxtaposition of photographs and sketches reminds the viewer or educates those not familiar with the films about scenes from The Hobbit and connote a sense of adventure and perhaps even danger. They have a dual role of advertising places to see and things to do in New Zealand, while acting as signifiers of journeying to another land.

 

The images also form the basis of a television commercial, in which a gentle, mature, male voice narrates: “Your journey starts beneath southern skies…” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64qx95Ckrwc). The spoken words do not make direct mention of The Hobbit or Middle-earth, although the final scene shows “Hobbiton”, one of the film locations which is now open to the public. According to a spokesperson from Tourism New Zealand, this is mainly to ensure sign off from Warner Brothers, who own all assets to the movie (‘Tourism New Zealand’s online campaign goes live today’ 2012). Despite the lack of reference to the film, the commercial supports the key message of the ‘real Middle-earth’ experience through the repetition of imagery used in other parts of the campaign, as well as phrases which recall scenes from the film. “Giant eagles” and creatures dwelling in caves both feature in The Hobbit, while the lines “wizards turn water into wine”, “treasure is found under foot” and “play on mountains protected by gods” are reflective of moments in the film narrative. The commercial concludes with “traveller, your dreams are waiting”. All these vignettes connote adventure, escape and a fantasy experience to entice anyone, fan of the films or not. The images are indexes of the ‘essence’ of New Zealand and belong to the paradigm of things in nature: mountains, lakes, caves, ocean, plains and the sky.

 

In addition to promotional imagery, Tourism New Zealand turned parts of New Zealand into replicas of Middle-earth: its “iSITE” information centres were given a makeover of round doors reminiscent of The Hobbit’s “Bag End” and shoot locations from the film were rebadged as “Rivendell” and “Hobbiton”. New Zealand’s website promotes The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings tours (http://www.newzealand.com.au/attractions-activities/lord-of-the-rings-hobbit-day-tours/) and offers the chance to take helicopter flights over mountains or kayak across lakes shown in the film.

 

Facebook and Twitter promoted the campaign by sharing images of New Zealand as Middle-earth and encouraging social media users to add the hash tag #realmiddleearth when sharing their stories about their trips. The hash tag succinctly sums up the key message of the campaign: ‘Come to New Zealand – it is the real Middle-earth which you are able to experience, not just see on the silver screen’.

 

The campaign makes use of strategic promotional partnerships between Tourism New Zealand and other entities, such as Air New Zealand, New Zealand Post, Channel One News and of course Weta Workshop, Peter Jackson’s celebrated prop and effects company. New Zealand Post released stamps featuring characters from The Hobbit (http://stamps.nzpost.co.nz/thehobbit), which when affixed to letters being sent overseas, promote not only the film but New Zealand to their international recipients. The country’s international airports have been dressed up to mimic sets from the film and some of Air New Zealand’s planes were even given a movie make-over (http://www.airnzhobbitmedia.com/). In the airline’s tradition of unusual and humorous in-flight safety videos, it called itself “Air Middle-earth” and dressed its onboard personnel as elves, while passengers (including Peter Jackson himself and an animated crawling Gollum) dressed as a variety of Middle-earth inspired characters, demonstrate the safety procedures.

 

Leading up to the world premiere of The Hobbit in the nation’s capital Wellington, arriving visitors could choose to have their passport stamped with “Welcome to Middle-earth” (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151129895131714&set=pb.34329506713.-2207520000.1354583556&type=3&theater). Channel One News host Tamati Coffey dressed as an elf and presented the weather forecast in Elvish, after being coached by an official ‘Sindarin Elvish’ dialect coach (‘New Zealand airs Middle-earth weather forecast’ 2012).

 

These various parts of the campaign form a fantasy projection of what life in Middle-earth could be (‘Lecture 10 – Big Things’ 2013 p.10). There are literal recreations of the fictional country in which The Hobbit is set. Locations such as “Hobbiton” are open for explorers to visit and safari tours of various settings throughout the film and the previous Lord of the Rings movie trilogy show visitors “why this magnificent country was chosen to portray Middle-earth” (http://www.newzealand.com.au/tours/safari-of-the-scenes).

 

For fans of Tolkien’s books or Jackson’s movies, the 100% Middle-earth campaign promises travellers the opportunity to live out a fantasy of being in the story themselves as explorers in an exotic and exciting adventure, experiencing what feels like danger, from the safety of tourism board created reality. Using their knowledge of the film, fans can decode the imagery used in the campaign to recognise locations, characters and themes, such as the emphasis on the journey, adventure and treasure seeking. They are rewarded for their knowledge with the ability to purchase official souvenirs created by Weta Workshop in tandem with the campaign, such as the “One Ring” and other movie replicas. Unlike the travellers in The Hobbit however, tourists feel assured that there is no real threat and confident of their return home. This assurance is achieved through using images of families with children, uplifting music and light-hearted humour to disarm any real danger. For example, Lord of the Rings’ Witch-king is asked to switch off his electronic devices before take off during Air New Zealand’s in flight safety video.

 

Despite the fact that Tolkien set his books in a land akin to medieval England and based many of his locations, names and languages on Norse mythology, New Zealand, far from the land of its settlers, has been fashioned to accommodate the author’s vision. There is an element of “ritual pilgrimage” (‘Lecture 10 – Big Things’ 2013 p.9) for fans, especially given how far away New Zealand is from most of the world. For members of the ‘cult of Tolkien’, making the long trip across the world to New Zealand could be seen as akin to travelling the stations of the cross, with tours taking them on each stage of The Hobbit’s titular character’s journey. Weta Workshop, even sell a map of New Zealand styled as Middle-earth (http://www.wetanz.com/new-zealand-map-of-middle-earth/), which shows travellers film locations.

 

There is a sense of exclusivity and prestige available only to those who make the pilgrimage to New Zealand. They can return content that they have taken their viewing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to the next level, not merely as an observer, but as a participant experiencing Middle-earth in real life. They can return bearing a replica of “The One Ring” and have photos of themselves taken in “Hobbiton” or holding swords used by Dwarfs, as if they themselves were part of Tolkien’s story. The Middle-earth traveller can declare him or herself as a true fan. In return, the sites visited by them also gain prestige and benefit through commerce and further publicity, when the travellers return home and tell their friends and family about their trip, or writes about it in blogs and Facebook, encouraging new visitors to make the pilgrimage. Revenue is generated, jobs created along the tourist trail and perhaps there is a sense of celebrity for locals who can claim to be part of the Middle-earth experience.

 

Those less familiar with The Hobbit universe, without the knowledge of the films required to decode the Middle-earth related meanings, haven’t been excluded from the campaign. For them, the fantasy projection is of a land beyond the boundaries of the reality of work, family duty, city life, politics and the concerns of the modern day. “Welcome to a place where fantasy comes to life”, says a slogan at Auckland Airport. The font it is written in can be decoded as similar to script used in the middle ages or (to those with Middle-earth knowledge) to Tolkien’s script in his books. It is surrounded by a pattern reminiscent of Elvish devices in both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. The slogan heralds the traveller’s arrival in Middle-earth. For non-fans, the slogan connotes the beginning of an adventure and the leaving behind the daily grind: the aforementioned fantasy projection.

 

Tourism New Zealand has made exploring Middle-earth user friendly, by allowing visitors to decipher its displays through guides, tours and signage. In this way it has drawn upon the principle of ‘legibility’ (Dicks 2003, p. 12), ensuring visitors are focussed on specific locations created or enhanced for the purpose of tourism. Examples include “Hobbiton” in Matamata and “Rivendell” in Upper Hutt, the location for both clearly signposted and communicated on various tourist websites, guides and maps. The “iSITE” information centres, the purpose of which is to provide visitor information, have themselves been transformed into signifiers of the Middle-earth, having been made over to mimic Middle-earth style housing. The film induced tourism sites have been created so that the traveller can experience interactivity within a fictional universe, “packaged into views, walks, trails, wall-boards, little worlds and parks through techniques of encapsulation, simulation and miniaturization” (Dicks 2003, p.11).

 

Through the 100% Middle-earth campaign, New Zealand has become an exhibition of movie memorabilia. The country has been opened up for all to view; seemingly unexplored forests, to treacherous glaciers, wild rivers and the darkest caves are now an adventure playground for domestic and overseas visitors who themselves wish to follow the path of The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins. The campaign promises that this terrain isn’t just for the seasoned explorer, but can be enjoyed by everyone.

 

Tours, such as the ‘Lord of the Rings Edoras Tour’ not only show off New Zealand’s breath-taking landscape, but also offer participants the chance to hold replicas of swords and other props used in the films (http://www.lordoftheringstours.co.nz/half_day_tours.htm), as well as showing scenes from the films on a portable DVD player to remind travellers of scenes from the film (http://www.lordoftheringstours.co.nz/edoras_tour.htm).

 

The campaign shows elements of the paradigm of natural, untouched wilderness, as well as Tourism New Zealand’s primary campaign, 100% Pure New Zealand, including epic sweeping landscapes, wild forests, snowy peaked mountains and mysterious caves, brought together in syntagmatic combination.

 

The viewability has been enhanced through well marked coherent and legible set of views, vistas , scenes, which enable the visitor to locate the advertised cultural identity of the place easily and quickly (Dicks 2003, p. 198).

 

The terror and beauty of nature is an important element in The Hobbit, as the mountains turn to savage warring giants, caves are treacherous dark labyrinths and the journey across mountains and plateaus seems endless and fraught with danger. The powerful scenes of nature portrayed in the imagery used by Tourism New Zealand (http://www.facebook.com/purenewzealand) echo the Romantics’ notions of ‘the sublime’; they are “marked by grandeur, vastness, incomprehensibility and the power to cause an intense pleasure in the observer, a pleasure that has transcendent qualities” (Prickett 2007, p1). Just like the Romantics, who sought out mountains for the sublime experience, to be “in the presence of powerful natural forces” (‘Lecture 10 – Big Things’ 2013 p.15), a traveller to New Zealand is invited to feel what The Hobbit and his Dwarf companions must have felt, as they set out upon their quest.

 

The landscapes of New Zealand would have been viewed as beautiful before the 100% Middle-earth campaign, however now the association with the fantasy land has allowed them to transcend to the sublime because of their ability to transport the observer into another world.

 

In the Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit, Sauron appears as a fiery, all-seeing eye atop his fortress tower, Barad-dur: a literal ‘eye of power’, which watches all of Middle-earth and commands armies of beasts throughout. Mount Doom is where Sauron forged the ‘One Ring’, the object of much desire in the films. In Peter Jackson’s realisation of Middle-earth, two of New Zealand’s most famous mountains, Mount Ruapehu, the highest peak in the North Island and Mount Ngauruhoe – which happen to also be live volcanoes – are used to depict it.

 

These open movie locations, welcoming anyone to see something which was previously reserved for a few (Bennett 1988 p.77). By hiking to the top of Mount Ruapehu, or standing against the fence of Bag End overlooking “Hobbiton”, visitors can survey New Zealand and Middle-earth, feel immersed in the fantasy, while experiencing a rare chance to be in a blockbuster movie location.

 

Despite winning an award for ‘World’s Leading Destination Marketing Campaign’ in the World Travel Awards 2012 (‘Middle Earth tourism campaign lauded’ 2012), the 100% Middle-earth campaign has also come under some criticism, which from the point of view of cultural tourism, must be noted.

 

One leading New Zealand based online news publication asked whether the “Middle-earth frenzy may have gone too far” (‘Hobbit-mania: Cute or cringey?’ 2012). The New York Times revealed that “while the spectacular and seemingly untarnished natural backdrops, stunning waterscapes and snow-tipped mountains might look world-class on film, critics say the realm New Zealand’s marketers have presented is as fantastical as dragons and wizards” (Anderson 2012) and refers to an international study in which New Zealand was 18th worst out of 189 nations when it came to preserving its natural surroundings. Popular blog Filmdrunk calls New Zealand the “world’s most far-flung Lord of the Rings gift shop” and that the Prime Minister might as well change his name to Bilbo Baggins (Mancini 2012).

 

Perhaps consumers of the promotional material created for this campaign could view the comparing of New Zealand to Middle-earth as a cheapening of an already quality product and a condescending treatment of an organically culturally rich country. A layer of visitability has been created over the top of existing reasons for tourists to come: hot springs, geysers, beaches and skiing, not to mention indigenous and settler historic places. In a way, the 100% Middle-earth has reduced New Zealand’s culture to an easily consumable Hollywood blockbuster for the mass market.

 

To conclude, the 100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand campaign has brought New Zealand to the world by leveraging off the international exposure of The Hobbit film series. Inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the “real Middle-earth”, promotional imagery draws on scenery used in the film, as well as opening up film locations to the public. Evoking feelings of excitement and a sense of escape, the campaign is a fantasy projection enticing observers to experience what Bilbo Baggins and his travel companions might have – from the safety of an organised tour.

 

New Zealand’s natural beauty is not enough for this campaign. New Zealand and the fantasy land it has been fashioned into, has been made visible, safe and easily consumable. Critics might say it has reduced New Zealand’s culture to a Hollywood production, removing authenticity and turning its citizens into Hobbits and Orcs. However, like it or not, through Tourism New Zealand’s award winning promotional campaign, the country has become a replica of a fantasy world and a chance for visitors to experience their own sublime encounter in a projection of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

 

References

 

Air New Zealand Hobbit Media Kit, viewed 12 January 2013, < http://www.airnzhobbitmedia.com/>

 

Anderson, Charles 2012 ‘New Zealand’s Green Tourism Push Clashed With Realities’, New York Times, 16 November 2012, viewed 26 January 2013 < http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/business/global/new-zealands-green-tourism-push-clashes-with-realities.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>

 

Bennett, Tony 1988, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, New Formations, No. 4 Spring

 

COMM120 2013 ‘Lecture 10 – Big Things’, Griffith University, unpublished

 

Dicks, Bella 2003, Culture on Display: The Production of Contemporary Visitability, Maidenhead (UK): Open University Press / McGraw-Hill Education

 

Dr Prickett, Stephen 2007, The Importance of the Sublime in the Romantic Aesthetic

 

Fox, Linda (2012), ‘New Zealand airs Middle-earth weather forecast’, Tnooz,  28 November 2012, viewed 7 January 2013, <http://www.tnooz.com/2012/11/28/news/new-zealand-airs-middle-earth-weather-forecast-video/>

 

‘Hobbit-mania: Cute or Cringey’, Stuff, 29 November 2012, viewed 26 January 2013, <http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/8015400/Hobbit-mania-Cute-or-cringey>

 

Mancini, Vince 2012 ‘Attn: The real New Zealand is now indistinguishable from parody’, Filmdrunk, 27 November 2012 <http://filmdrunk.uproxx.com/2012/11/new-zealand-hobbit-middle-earth-passport-stamps>

 

‘Middle Earth tourism campaign lauded’, Stuff, 13 December 2012, viewed 26 January 2013, <http://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/new-zealand/8074715/Middle-Earth-tourism-campaign-lauded>

 

New Zealand, Homepage, viewed 7 January 2013, <http://www.newzealand.com/au/> 

 

New Zealand, Lord of the Rings/Hobbit day tours, viewed 12 January 2013, <http://www.newzealand.com.au/attractions-activities/lord-of-the-rings-hobbit-day-tours/>

 

New Zealand Post, online stamp shop, viewed 7 January 2013, < http://stamps.nzpost.co.nz/thehobbit>

 

Southern Lakes Sightseeing Lord of the Rings Tours, viewed 7 January 2013, <http://www.lordoftheringstours.co.nz/>

 

Statistics New Zealand 2012, Tourism Satellite Account 2012 Summary results, viewed 3 February 2013, <http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/industry_sectors/Tourism/tourism-satellite-account-2012/summary-results.aspx>

 

Tourism New Zealand, Sector Marketing page, Fast Facts, viewed 3 February 2013, <http://www.tourismnewzealand.com/sector-marketing/the-hobbit/fast-facts/>

 

‘Tourism New Zealand’s online campaign goes live today’, Global Travel Industry News, 18 November 2012, viewed 13 January 2013, <http://www.eturbonews.com/32319/tourism-new-zealands-online-campaign-goes-live-today>

 

Tourism New Zealand official Facebook page, ‘New Zealand 100% Pure’, viewed 12 January 2013, <http://www.facebook.com/purenewzealand>

 

YouTube, 100% Middle-earth 100% Pure New Zealand – extended edition, 22 August 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64qx95Ckrwc>

 

YouTube, An Unexpected Briefing, 31 October 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBlRbrB_Gnc>

 

Weta Workshop, The Lord of the Rings: New Zealand Map of Middle-earth product listing, Wellington, viewed 20 January 2013, <http://www.wetanz.com/new-zealand-map-of-middle-earth/>

 

 


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