New Zealand Finds It's Not as '100% Pure' as It Looks ; A Green Tourism Push Tied to 'Hobbit' Clashes with Some Hard Realities

Article excerpt

The Pacific country, which provides the pristine landscapes for the "Hobbit" films, markets itself as "100% pure." But environmental studies show the quality of its land and water is sliding.

CORRECTION APPENDED

The scene is set: a giant countdown clock, a 1,500-foot red carpet and assurances from the New Zealand government's tourism arm that the South Pacific country will once again become the real Middle Earth.

As the Wellington premiere of "The Hobbit" approaches, New Zealand's picturesque landscapes are set to take center stage once again. Ten years ago, the breathtaking vistas featured in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy were at the heart of a tourism campaign that helped jump-start a multibillion-dollar international travel industry and a worldwide image of the country's clean, green living. It was what Tourism New Zealand, the country's tourism agency, called "100% pure" New Zealand.

But while the spectacular and seemingly untarnished natural backdrops, stunning waterscapes and snow-tipped mountains might look world-class on film, critics say the realm New Zealand's marketers have presented is as fantastical as dragons and wizards.

"There are almost two worlds in New Zealand," said Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in environmental science at Massey University in Palmerston North. "There is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality."

The clean and green image has long been promoted by the isolated country in its striving to compete in world markets. But an international study in the journal PLoS One measuring countries' loss of native vegetation, native habitat, number of endangered species and water quality showed that per capita, New Zealand was ranked 18th from the bottom of 189 countries when it came to preserving its natural surroundings.

Mr. Joy said that for a country purporting to be so pure, New Zealand seemed to be failing by many international environmental benchmarks.

Last month, the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment released a survey showing that more than half of the country's freshwater recreational sites were unsafe to swim in. Fecal contamination of waterways, caused largely by dairy farming -- the source of 13.9 billion New Zealand dollars, or $10 billion, in annual exports, nearly a quarter of New Zealand's total -- was widespread.

The survey showed that people who swam in those rivers were at a high risk of illness, including serious diseases like giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis and campylobacteriosis. The waterways were the cause of 18,000 to 34,000 cases of waterborne disease each year.

Eugenie Sage, a member of the New Zealand Parliament who is the environment spokeswoman for the Green Party, said the results belied the "100% pure" marketing image.

"We promote our country as 100 percent pure and 100 percent Middle Earth," she told Parliament in October. "But to swim in our rivers, which is the birthright of Kiwi kids -- you cannot do it in the majority of the rivers that the Ministry for the Environment monitored."

Before the Nov. 28 release of the first of three "Hobbit" films by Mr. Jackson -- the movies are based on a book by J.R.R. Tolkien, also the author of "The Lord of the Rings" -- Prime Minister John Key has been courting more international tourism.

This year in Japan, Mr. Key introduced a "100% Middle Earth" campaign to attract tourists from that country. In September, he made an official trip to Los Angeles to woo the film and tourism industries.

The "Lord of the Rings" films were a boon for New Zealand, attracting more than 20,000 people a year to the country and pouring an estimated 700 million dollars into the economy in 2004 alone.

International tourist spending almost doubled, from 3.1 billion dollars in 1999, when filming of the "Lord of the Rings" began in the country, to 6 billion dollars at the end of 2004, a year after the final installment of the trilogy made its debut. …