20 years of Middle Earth

The first Lord Of The Rings movie was released 20 years ago. How has it changed New Zealand, and what is the best way to see this country?

New Zealand's Mount Ngauruhoe
Mount Ngauruhoe AKA Mount Doom

The first Lord of the Rings film came out in December 2001. After the final movie in the trilogy was released, tourism to New Zealand – where all three movies were filmed – had risen by over 30%. Having taken my now wife to the second film in the series on our first ever date, we were both inspired by the incredible landscapes on the big screen.

Although New Zealand didn’t have Hobbits, orcs, and other such figments of Tolkien’s imagination, the creatures we saw there were equally magical. In fact, I think that the LOTR director Peter Jackson missed out some of the best parts of this incredible country. To be fair to him, though, it would be hard to fit places such as the stellar glow worms of Waitomo Cave into the original tale.

Yeah, but is it really that good?

Near Milford Sound, New Zealand
On the road to Milford Sound

No, it’s even better. Jackson did an admirable job of showcasing his country, as is evidenced by the increase in tourist numbers there. Maybe it was because of the LOTR trilogy that we decided to spend so long (about 7 weeks) in New Zealand. Even that wasn’t enough time.

Instead of Gandalf’s trusty steed we travelled the country in an old Toyota Hiace, converted to function as a small campervan. Our agenda was to see New Zealand’s most dramatic sights, some of which happened to include LOTR locations.

A landscape made for epic tales

We visited New Zealand in 2008, almost 5 years after the final movie premiered. I had been expecting LOTR-themed everything. Hobbit Hikes, LegolasLand, Walks with Orcs etc. But there were in fact very few mentions of the movie. This is a country where the landscapes are more than capable of attracting visitors without Hollywood making a fuss over it.

Even though visitor numbers have grown strongly since the LOTR movies were released, they had already been growing exponentially since the mid-80s. The franchise did, however, help numbers reach a plateau that didn’t drop off during the 2008 crash.

New Zealand's Forgotten World Highway
Not the Gates of Moria, but a tunnel on the Forgotten World Highway in New Zealand’s North Island

Find your own pace

As you may have by now realised, this post isn’t going to be a list of LOTR filming locations. There are many, many other sites which have already covered that. What I wanted to do with this post is celebrate a movie which I love and in which the main star is a country that is best enjoyed without an agenda.

Te Anau, New Zealand
Nets are a necessity in parts of the South Island where sandflies thrive

Some planning is necessary, particularly when visiting popular locations, and even more particularly when embarking on the incredible multi-day hikes. But the prevalence of fantastic Department of Conservation campsites means that, more often than not, you can just rock up somewhere and decide to spend the night in a landscape so spectacular you can’t quite believe that Hollywood has yet to discover it. This is an experience we had over and over again.

Before the pandemic hit, visitor numbers to New Zealand had risen to almost 4 million. Despite the LOTR hype, and despite the (until recently) sustained rise in tourists, this remains one of the least densely-populated countries in the world, with just 18 people per square kilometre. As you stand alone looking at Mount Ngauruhoe, or paddling along the Waiau River, it’s easy to imagine a Hobbit wandering by.


Visit New Zealand’s South Island with this free 20-day itinerary (for Budget, Mid-range, and Luxury travellers).

Home to many of the Lord of the Rings locations, explore North Island with my free 17-day itinerary for all budgets.

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I’ve detailed the very best hostels and hotels in the itineraries above, but if you are able to hire/purchase a campervan then I believe that this is the best way to see New Zealand. If you do want to book accommodation then, for the best value, I can recommend both Trivago and Hostelworld.

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Find the best flight prices to New Zealand on Skyscanner (if you’re flexible with dates then you can find some good deals).


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