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Not Just a Tolkien Amount

'The Lord of the Rings' movie trilogy boosts tourism and brings other benefits to New Zealand. Locals call it the 'Frodo economy.'

October 24, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MATAMATA, New Zealand — Among the ruins of Middle-earth, the family of sheep farmer Ian Alexander is astounded by the popularity of its remote rural pastures.

Since the Alexander family allowed director Peter Jackson to film J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy on its land in 1999, pilgrims have been flocking to the family farm in a bucolic northern corner of this island nation.

There are absolutely no links to modern life on the farm -- no buildings, no power lines, not even any planes flying overhead. All that's here is a lush carpet of grass that curls around the remains of low-slung hobbit homes built into the hills and ends at a wall of trees as dense and ominous as Fangorn Forest.

The Tolkien fanatics have kept coming with pockets full of cash, desperate for the chance to see the place where the trilogy's hero, Frodo Baggins, began his daring journey to vanquish the forces of evil by destroying the One Ring.

And so, in a bid to maintain some control over the situation, the Alexander family decided to set up a tourism company.

"We had no idea that so many, many, many, many people would pay to see it," said Russell Alexander, Ian's 35-year-old son, who runs the family's "Rings Scenic Tours" company.

As impressive as the Alexanders' sheep farm is, the unforeseen economic boom that followed the filming of Jackson's trilogy is even more so. Some locals call it the "Frodo economy," and it has rippled across New Zealand, population 4 million, in many unlikely ways.

Much of the payoff was tied directly to the estimated $500 million that was spent to make the three movies, the third of which will hit theaters in December. For a time, the production engaged 23,000 workers, making it the largest private employer in New Zealand.

Then came the tourists, and scores of new restaurants and bed and breakfasts to cater to them.

From the majestic fields of Twizel in the heart of the South Island, the site of the "Pelennor Fields," to the artisan colony of Nelson on the coast of Tasman Bay, where the trilogy's pivotal One Ring was forged, nearly every small town and cozy hamlet has benefited.

The Frodo economy came calling in earnest on the Alexanders in the form of three young girls from overseas toting backpacks filled with drawings of Bag End, Frodo's home. They hopped the fences and wandered for hours, finally stumbling across the remains of the movie set deep inside the 1,250-acre farm.

Then there was the tourist who knocked on the Alexanders' front door and demanded to be taken to the footpaths walked by the mighty wizard Gandalf the Grey.

He was followed by the impossibly tall German dressed like Frodo in a wool tunic and woven Elvish cloak, who got down on his hands and knees and begged for permission to spend the night under the giant pine tree where Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins, celebrated his eleventy-first birthday.

Bewildered, the family sat down in the summer of 2002 and considered its options. Buy more guard dogs? Build higher fences?

"There was no question, really," Russell Alexander said. "We had a constant stream of people popping by, asking to take a quick peek. We had to organize it, and we thought that we'd charge them a little bit to cover the costs of running the tours."

And, of course, the tours would "keep the bloody people from scaring the animals," said Wara Warren, a family friend and local rugby club manager who now helps run tours of the Alexander farm.

When they started in December, they expected to welcome about two dozen tourists a month. Instead, more than 12,000 visitors have discovered the farm over the last 11 months and happily have paid $30 each to visit it. Without buying a single ad, the family's tiny tourism business has pulled in nearly $350,000 from Tolkien fans -- a sum more than 20 times the average annual income here.

The speed and intensity of the Frodo economy has been outright baffling. More than 200 miles south of the Alexanders, in a rural Southern Wairarapa community so small it doesn't have a name, the phone never seems to stop ringing inside the 1920s farmhouse belonging to Cheryl and Barry Eldridge.

The couple, who migrated to New Zealand from England nearly three decades ago, wanted a simple farming life. On their 3,000 acres of towering mountains and rolling pastures, the air is thick with earthy scents and the bite of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

They began to raise a tiny flock of black Gotland sheep, whose thick wool pelts feel more like silk. Cheryl, a professional potter, and Barry, a former accountant, use the wool's natural hues to weave ornate patterns in their shop just outside the capital city of Wellington.

The couple does everything by hand, from shearing to spinning. After finding a 19th-century manual loom, Barry trained himself as the family weaver.

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