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New Zealand parlays its Lord of the Rings exposure into a major tourism boom

Can you still visit Kiwi-land affordably?
IMG: Fell beasts
Fell Beasts ridden by Ring Wraiths bear down on Readings Cinema and The Embassy, where the World Premiere was screenedNeil Price / Wellington City Council
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

If industry analysts have it right, the opening of the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (Dec. 17th across the US) could shatter box office records. It's already broken other types of records across the globe, with over 10,000 fans showing up to watch stars enter the premiere in London; and a whopping 100,000 Kiwis (that's 3 percent of the population of New Zealand) turning up in Wellington for parades and festivities celebrating the Dec. 1 premiere there. While the focus has been on hobbits, elves, hunky Orlando Bloom and director Peter Jackson, New Zealand itself has managed to grab much of the spotlight, igniting its tourist industry in the process.

The numbers tell the story. While tourism to most areas of the world declined in the two years following Sept. 11, 2001, New Zealand's have been growing at a steady clip of about 3.4 pecent each year. That may not sound like much, but New Zealand now gets 2.06 million visitors per year--a big number for a country of just over 4 million residents. Each year, there's been a definite uptick just after the films have been released; in fact, according to a poll taken by the NZ tourist board 10 percent of visitors to NZ say that they're there because of the film.

But even with the increased number of visitors, you're unlikely (at this point) to feel crowded anywhere. New Zealand's bucolic beauty is yet to be spoiled, as vast swatches of land are uninhabited. In the North, you drive for hours through pasture-land as deeply green as that in Ireland, and dotted with hundreds upon hundred of sheep. There are sleepy coastal towns, harbors bristling with yachts; and geothermal wonders at Waiotapu, home to impressive geysers, bubbling mud ponds and more. The south island is wilder and with an even smaller population, studded with glaciers, impressive mountains, fossil forests and fiords. It doesn't take much to see why director Peter Jackson would want to set the ultimate of fantasy films in this fantastical landscape.

To Kiwi cheaply

Traveling inexpensively throughout New Zealand is a breeze. Though the New Zealand dollar has gotten stronger against the US dollar of late (one US dollar used to buy nearly two NZ dollars, but now it's closer to 1.5 New Zealand dollars), the basics of life there are still quite affordable. Meals rarely cost more than $10/person at even the nicest of restaurants, and most motels charge less than $50/night.

But getting there--aye, there's the rub! It's high season currently in NZ, their summer. At this time of year (December through March) airfares from the US can easily top $1700 putting "Middle Earth" out of the range of most Americans. However, we've found three astonishingly good deals that combine airfare from the US, transportation in country and lodgings--each for less than a thousand dollars.

Waiting to save: The best prices come to those who travel during NZ's fall season. A well-known Oceania specialist called Sunspots International is offering a seven-night vacation there for just $799 for travel between Apr 21 and Jun 24. The package includes:

  • Airfare from Los Angeles to Auckland (add-ons are available; the international flight leaves at 11 pm at night, making connections within the US highly doable). Carrier: Air New Zealand, Wednesday departures only.
  • One night "Go Kiwi" hotel pass, allowing the bearer to bunk at a decent airport hotel on the night of arrival.
  • Six night campervan rental. This is a four-wheel drive, Kiwi-version of an RV, big enough to sleep two and equipped with a full range of cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery; a two burner gas cook top; external hand-held shower; small fridge; sleeping bags, pillow and towels; and an outdoor table and chairs.

The package does not include taxes or airport security fees. Singles are $163 more; the extra day rate is $18 per person. To learn more, contact Sunspots International at 800/334-5623 (www.sunspotsintl.com).

Traveling now: Doing the same type of fly/RV vacation during NZ's glorious summer season costs exactly $200 more. The company with the lowest rates for this time period is Tahiti Vacations (800/553-3477, www.tahitivacations.net), and its $999 campervan package is identical to the one above, except for the dates which are Jan. 1 through Mar. 31 (singles pay $300 more) and the fact that you'll be flying Air Tahiti Nui. If you"re planning to travel between Mar 1 and Apr 20, go with Sunspots (see above) as its rates during this period are $50/person less than Tahiti Vacation's.

A seven story Gandalf banner gazes out across the harbor from the New Zealand Post building

For those who'd rather not drive in the same place they sleep, Tahiti Vacations offers a package combining a rental car with seven-days worth of passes for the Golden Chain for seven nights. The price for this variation is $999/person based on double occupancy, $1359 for singles. Now, you're not going to get Travelodges with these passes. Kiwi motels tend to be family-run, friendly little places, more like the B&B's of England than the cookie-cutter chains of the US.

For one final variation on the theme, Tahiti Vacations will throw in a four night stay in Tahiti on the way back for just $390 more ($580 more for singles). You bunk one night at the Te Tiare on the island of Tahiti itself, and then spend three nights at the Hotel Kaveka on Moorea.

For young people only: If you're lucky enough to be under the age of 26, we have one more deal for you, and it's a doozy. For just $738 giant student travel agent STA Travel(www.statravel.com) will fly you on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles to Auckland, with departures now through June 15. What makes this offer even more remarkable is that you have up to a year to return. STA can also throw in four nights hostel stays (or more) for an additional $61. You'll need an International Student Identity card (you don't need to be a student to get one, just young) to purchase the tickets. Conveniently, the ISIC can also be bought from STA.

Discounted airfares are available from all gateways, including:

  • Dallas/Fort Worth: $984
  • Phoenix: $838
  • Denver: $938
  • Atlanta: $1,040