Accompanied by 74 friends and around 40 international media, every moment of their journey was captured on social media.
The online fan fellowship contest was Tourism New Zealand's (TNZ) biggest piece of Hobbit leveraging activity this year, in the lead up to the final film's official release on 10 December. The contest generated significant international interest when it launched at this year's Comic-Con International in August, resulting in more than 140,000 people from approximately 30 countries entering.
Coverage generated by The Hobbit Fan Fellowship to date, through fans' social media and the presence of international media in New Zealand, has not only shown how the fantasy of Middle-earth can become reality in the form of a New Zealand holiday, but also ensured this story was told to a wide global audience.
A report this year by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research tells us that TNZ's leveraging of New Zealand's connection to Middle-earth is a key reason for our increasing visitor numbers out of our core markets.
This finding is backed up by the International Visitor Survey: 13 per cent of holiday arrivals say The Hobbit Trilogy was a factor in influencing their interest in a visit to New Zealand. A decade ago in 2004, following the release of the final film in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, that figure was only six per cent.
The success of the fan fellowship contest was underpinned by TNZ's strong partnerships with Air New Zealand, Warner Bros. Pictures and its filmmaking partners New Line and MGM. Regional Tourism Organisations and tourism operators also played a vital role in showcasing New Zealand's amazing Middle-earth backdrops to the world over the course of the fan fellowship journey.
Arriving in Auckland on one of Air New Zealand's Hobbit-inspired aircraft the group's first impression of New Zealand was summed up beautifully by a fan who said "we looked out of the window of the plane and we saw Middle-earth" ‒ a fantastic start to their once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Over the next five days the fan fellowship visited locations from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies, split into groups of Wizards, Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves and Orcs.
On day one in Rotorua, New Zealand was already making an impression, with a fan commenting "everywhere you look here you see staggeringly beautiful landscapes". The next day the group immersed themselves in the real-life movie set of Hobbiton - complete with a surprise visit from Nori, Dori, Bombur and Oin, otherwise known as New Zealand actors Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Stephen Hunter and John Callen.
After experiencing the adrenalin, wine and food Queenstown is known for, including a treasure hunt in Paradise to find The One Ring and sit next to Peter Jackson at the private screening of the final film, it was back to Wellington for the last day of the journey - and the event they had all been waiting for - a viewing of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Although the decade of Middle-earth films is drawing to a close, Tourism New Zealand wants to ensure that New Zealand's association as the home of the cinematic Middle-earth lives on long past the release of the final film by continuing to show how easily the fantasy of Middle-earth can be experienced by individuals in the form of their own journey through New Zealand.
As one departing fan put it, "you just can't compete with New Zealand, it's awesome. This is the real Middle-earth."
First published in Inside Tourism issue 1004, 20 November