New Zealand has been slipping off the international tourism radar since the Rugby World Cup. Can New Zealand movie-makers put us back on screen with global travelers? The Peter Jackson Formula is about to be put to the test.
This week, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, Arts and Culture Minister Chris Finlayson and Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss should be chewing over an officials’ review of New Zealand Film Commission funding schemes, a review inspired by recommendations from the country’s star movie-maker Sir Peter Jackson. Their progress will be critical to the success of Prime Minister John Key’s plan to put New Zealand tourism back on the growth curve with the next round of major movie releases from - Sir Peter Jackson.
Our tourism sector – second only to the dairy industry in terms of its foreign exchange earning capacity – certainly needs a shot in the arm. If the Rugby World Cup hadn’t pulled in an extra 77,000 visitors, there would have almost zero growth in visitor arrivals last year. The latest Ministry of Business Innovation and Enterprise Tourism Industry Monitor says the first quarter of this year saw demand drop by 3.7% and profitability fall by 4.1% compared to the same quarter last year. Sector confidence has slumped by 8 points from the final quarter of 2011, and key industry players are getting grumpy.
Air New Zealand chairman John Palmer, his departing chief executive Rob Fyfe and Martin Snedden, the new chief at the New Zealand Tourism Industry Association, have all blasted NZ Inc for lack of initiative over the last week. “We don't think the progress in tourism is anywhere near what it needs to be," said Palmer. “There's an urgent need to review our approach,” says Fyfe. Snedden believes there’s negativity within the sector and a perception tourism is “stuck in a rut… struggling to come to grips with how to cope with change”.
At Tourism New Zealand, chief executive Kevin Bowler stands firmly behind his board’s 14 year old and increasingly contentious“100% Pure New Zealand” brand. Nevertheless, he pins his hopes for a quick tourism revival on the genius of Jackson and the impact of the global release of his Lord of the Rings prequels – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in November, and The Hobbit: There and Back Again” a year later.
"We aim to show potential travellers that the fantasy of Middle-earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand - and that there is a whole world of experiences to be had and people to meet within the movie-scene style landscapes," Bowler told media at the industry’s recent international tourism expo, TRENZ.
The promotional message – “100% Middle-earth – 100% Pure New Zealand” will be carried world-wide in Tourism New Zealand’s $65 million marketing programme and - thanks to the deal struck last year by the Prime Minister - in a Jackson-directed video track promoting New Zealand as a tourist and filmmaking destination on every Hobbit DVD and download purchased from Warner Digital after the movies are through their peak release period, beginning midway through next year.
Now, here’s the rub. Tourism New Zealand actually has about $10,000 less to spend in the current financial year than it had last year. What’s more the Warner Brothers’ Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy: Extended Version has been in the market since June last year, with a track titled “New Zealand and Middle-earth Interactive”. On top of that, Bowler himself quotes a Ministry survey of Lord Of The Ring’s impact in 2004: 1% of visitors cited the films as the main reason for their visit, and that would have generated $33 million in tourism spend in a year when the total international visitor spend topped $6.5 billion. That was a lift of just 0.5%.
There is a case to be made for New Zealand initiating a film-induced tourism strategy, but the tourism industry needs to make a much deeper commitment before it achieves worthwhile tourism returns. At the time of TRENZ – the industry’s most important international tourism promotion event - Tourism New Zealand was still working with Sir Peter on the content of his video track, agreeing the detailing of its Middle-earth marketing programme, and seeking advice on the trade mark and intellectual property rights issues that tourism operators will need to observe in their Hobbit-related activities.
Air New Zealand is playing its part. “We will be putting millions of dollars of marketing behind the two films based on The Hobbit to promote New Zealand in new and innovative ways across the globe,” the airline’s general manager market and communications Mike Tod promised last week. Two aircraft will be painted with Hobbit livery and the airline will offer Hobbit-related in-flight experiences on its United Kingdom and North American routes. But it’s the on-the-ground tourism experiences that need development – more high-profile Tolkien-related attractions, and a well-developed, diverse programme of events and activities.
New Zealand’s film industry is playing its part. Its business is kicking $3.2 billion a year into our economy. 35 off-shore productions were working here last year, contributing more than $563 million – up 15% year on the previous year. Blockbusters like Avatar, 10,000 BC, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Emperor and X-Men Origins: Wolverine have joined Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Tin Tin in promoting New Zealand as a location, a source of movie-making expertise,and, potentially, a tourism destination. The tax refunds and government film funding programme currently under review are more than earning their keep.
Every successful international film made in New Zealand or by New Zealanders has a fandom our tourism industry can capture if it does more to align its activities with content being generated by our film industry entrepreneurs. Kevin Bowler says the theme of New Zealand’s film-induced tourism strategy will be: “New Zealand – where fantasy meets reality”. Let’s hope it’s a happy union – not a fatal collision.
Declaration of interest: David Beatson has held senior executive roles at the New Zealand Tourism Board and Air New Zealand.