New Zealand out to mine tourist magic from Hobbit movies

Updated 07 November 2012
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New Zealand out to mine tourist magic from Hobbit movies

From a giant, bug-eyed Gollum sculpture looming over passengers at Wellington Airport to promotional banners covering the facades of office blocks, the upcoming “The Hobbit” movie is impossible to ignore in New Zealand.
Tourism chiefs, hoping to recreate the surge in visitors inspired by the original “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, have launched a massive marketing campaign around director Peter Jackson’s latest Middle Earth three-parter.
Like the first trilogy, “The Hobbit” movies use New Zealand’s mountainous scenery as a backdrop, amounting to what some tourism insiders gleefully describe as a nine-hour-long advertisement for the country’s rugged charms.
Tourism New Zealand chief executive Kevin Bowler does not go that far, but says the films offer the country invaluable global exposure that can be converted into increased visitor arrivals.
“We aim to show potential travelers that the fantasy of Middle Earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand,” he said.
But behind the hype, official figures show the first of the new movies “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” cannot come soon enough for an industry struggling for momentum almost a decade on from the original Middle Earth saga.
New Zealand’s international visitor arrivals jumped from 1.5 million to 2.4 million between 2000 and 2006 on the back of “The Lord of the Rings” films, but have remained flat at about 2.5 million for the past four years.
A recent Tourism Industry Association report expressed concerns that New Zealand had “lost its edge” and was no longer regarded as a must-see destination.
“New Zealand is perceived to have fallen off the global radar as a desirable destination to some extent,” the report found.
“In part, as a result of increasing competition from other destinations, and in part because of economic conditions in (tourist) generating countries.” The earthquakes that devastated Christchurch in 2011, resulting in 185 deaths, and a local currency pushing record highs have also not helped matters.
— ‘Rings’ demand surprised tour operators — Tourism operator David Gatward-Ferguson said that when the first “Rings” film was released in 2001, the industry was surprised by the influx of visitors wanting to travel to places featured in the movie.
“We were initially caught out, yes, and geared up over the next year or two to meet demand,” he said, recalling a time when the currency was at a 25-year low and international travel was buoyed by a booming global economy.
Gatward-Ferguson’s Nomad Expeditions soon revamped its eco-adventure tours along a Middle Earth theme, taking tourists speaking elvish and wearing Tolkien costumes to set locations in the South Island.
With the entire tourism industry abuzz over potential spin-off benefits from Jackson’s latest project, there is little chance operators will be wrong-footed when the first Hobbit film premieres on November 28.
Tourism New Zealand has changed its “100% Pure” global branding to “100 percent Middle Earth” and Wellington has dubbed itself “The Middle of Middle Earth” for the premiere, contributing NZ$1.1 million ($905,000) to the event.
Middle Earth coins have been minted, Hobbit stamps issued and Air New Zealand is running an in-flight safety video full of orc, elves and wizards.
The national government is so convinced of the benefits to the tourism and movie industries that when a union dispute threatened to send filming offshore in 2010, it amended the country’s industrial laws to ensure it stayed.
Glen Croy, a specialist in film-driven tourism at Australia’s Monash University, said research showed any jump in visitor numbers would not be driven by hard-core Tolkien fans sporting prosthetic Hobbit feet and pointy Gandalf hats.
He said the film’s value lies in putting New Zealand on the agenda as a destination for ordinary travelers considering a long-haul holiday, adding that the country had become synonymous with Middle Earth and each movie release reinforced the association.
“People still talk about ‘Lord of the Rings’, people still remember the films. You choose to watch a film, which you don’t do with an advertisement, and that makes people more receptive.” He said the incidental benefits from filming in New Zealand — such as Orlando Bloom raving about Kiwi ski-fields or Stephen Fry waxing lyrical on Twitter about Wellington’s coffee — also drew people in.
Tourism New Zealand is not specifying how much of a lift it expects from “The Hobbit” but Gatward-Ferguson said the high local dollar and tough economic times meant it was unlikely to match “The Lord of the Rings.”
“It’ll be positive but it’ll be muted,” he said.
“There’s a lot of naysayers out there and we’re not going to get another wall of visitors, but New Zealand is small enough that we only need to win over a small proportion of the world market to make a big difference.” The Kiwi dollar has almost doubled against the greenback since the first movie, currently around 83 US cents and tipped to threaten a record high of 88.43 US cents set in August 2011, compared to 43 US cents in late 2001.
The doubters have not prevented Gatward-Ferguson from expanding his fleet of off-road expedition vehicles by five and buying Hobbit-themed licence plates to adorn them, including “Bilbo,” Smaug” and “Thorin,” all characters in the movies.
“We’ve come to our own conclusions, made our investment and now we’ve just got to wait and see if we were right,” he said.


Review: A political artist talks humanity, refugees and mass migration

Updated 22 April 2018
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Review: A political artist talks humanity, refugees and mass migration

BEIRUT: This precious blue book is a compilation of famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on the global refugee crisis, edited by prominent American collector and publisher Larry Warsh. “Humanity” is full of important messages that can be delivered at any time, hence the handy, bag-friendly size.
The quotations, selected from interviews, magazine features and podcasts from around the world, show Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on humanity, mass migration and refugees.
According to his interview excerpts, the artist believes we have lost the capacity for compassion.
“The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritization of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis. The West has all but abandoned its belief in humanity and support for the precious ideals contained in declarations on universal human rights, it has sacrificed these ideals for short-sighted cowardice and greed,” he once said.
Ai Weiwei understands how it feels to be completely destitute in a foreign land, with nothing but one’s humanity. In 1959, during the Cultural Revolution, he accompanied his father to a labor camp in the Gobi Desert. When he returned to Beijing with his parents in 1975, he was 19 and determined to fight against injustice. Not afraid to criticize the Chinese authorities, he became an outspoken artist-cum-activist. He is now considered one of the most iconic artists of our times. He was detained in 2011 at Beijing airport, remained in custody for 81 days and was subsequently placed under house arrest. His passport was taken away and returned in 2015. That same year, Amnesty International awarded Ai Weiwei the Ambassador of Conscience Award for his work in defense of human rights and he relocated to Berlin.
Each quote in this book pricks our conscience, makes us feel uncomfortable, and reminds us that our indifference and and lack of action toward other human beings is inhuman.
For example, in the book, the artist is quoted as saying: “Allowing borders to determine your thinking is incompatible with the modern era.”
A powerful statement that is one of many to be found in this thought-provoking read.