Visitors to Middle Earth can expect to find a place governed not by a prime minister but by a winemaking Gandalf lookalike.

Visitors to Middle Earth can expect to find a place governed not by a prime minister but by a winemaking Gandalf lookalike.

RING thief Gollum reaches for a fish above the departure lounge at Wellington airport. Thirteen dwarfs walk across a ledge at the New Zealand Post building. On a banner eight storeys high, hobbit Bilbo Baggins stares east across Wellington Harbour towards the peninsula where a film set for the first Hobbit movie has been built among the macrocarpas.

The inhabitants of Tolkien's Middle Earth are arriving in director Sir Peter Jackson's home town. The message seems to be: if you are male, hairy, scaly, slimy, fishy, short or fat, Wellington is ready to welcome you. If you carry a pickaxe and like to wear your beard in several plaits, even better.

With less than a month to go until the November 28 world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Wellington is one of many locations seeking the lucrative title of most Middle Earth of all.

After dairy farming, tourism is New Zealand's biggest export earner. In the year to March 2011, international tourists contributed $9.7 billion to the economy, an increase of 1.5 per cent on the year before. The Hobbit trilogy is expected to boost visitor numbers further and Tourism New Zealand is preparing to move from its ''Middle Earth-lite'' campaign (adverts in Australia promoting ''the magical elements'' of a road trip around the North Island) to the real campaign in which the entire country will be rebranded as Middle Earth.

If the trailers on YouTube are anything to go by, visitors to Middle Earth can expect to find a place governed not by a prime minister but by a winemaking Gandalf lookalike.

''If you go to South Africa, you want to look at wildlife,'' says Russell Alexander, the former farmer who is now a part-owner (with Wingnut Films) of Hobbiton Movie Set Tours in Matamata. ''If you go to France, you want to see the Eiffel Tower. Lord of the Rings has put New Zealand on the map.''

Right now, Wellington feels pretty Middle Earth, too. On top of the sculptures already there, a giant Hobbit creature is being made to perch on the roof of the Embassy Theatre, the heritage-listed 1924 cinema where the film will premiere. The identity is a secret but my pick is Smaug, the robber dragon.

The theatre has a countdown clock out the front and its classical facade is decorated with green and gold digital banners that say: ''The middle of Middle Earth.'' Hobbit cartographer and calligrapher Daniel Reeve designed the image. Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown has one by the door of her office. ''Look at that,'' she says to me, pointing at the first 'd' in Middle. ''What do you think that is?''

I squint at a brown, finger-shaped squiggle. It appears to be a map. ''Is it the Miramar Peninsula?''

The mayor is pleased. She shows me the harbour, stained an ancient sort of tea-bag brown, and puts her finger on the spot where the council chambers would be, a blip on the curve. Further along is the peninsula. This is the Wellington suburb of Miramar, home to Weta Digital and its sister companies Stone Street Studios, Weta Workshop (which is making the giant Hobbit creature for the Embassy Theatre roof), Portsmouth Hire and Park Road Post Production.

''And one of the biggest data-processing centres in the southern hemisphere,'' Wade-Brown says.

The 10,000-square-metre data server farm in Miramar provided the digital grunt for the special effects in Avatar and now The Hobbit and is the technical backbone of Wellington's growing film sector.

The mayor says more than 750 companies in the capital have some sort of connection with the industry. They employ everything from dressmakers and blacksmiths to baristas and senior software developers.

Melissa Heath, owner of Southern Lakes Sightseeing, laughs at the capital's ''middle of Middle Earth'' tag. ''We thought we'd let them get away with that,'' she says. ''We have been calling our tours the centre of Middle Earth for 10 years.''

Heath claims more than 70 per cent of the locations for the Lord of the Rings films were in Otago or Southland. She watched The Fellowship of the Ring 172 times to be sure, stumbling around on remote ridges, comparing what was on the screen of her laptop with what she could see at her feet.

''We had the rock pinpointed to the lichen on the rock. We could say, 'That is the rock Aragorn fell over'.''

The company will do the same with The Hobbit. Heath and four others are planning a forensic movie-viewing marathon in the office and in the field.

Other Lord of the Rings tour operators such as Heath and Scott Courtney, owners of Wellington Rover Tours, can only guess at The Hobbit locations. ''We don't know where they are,'' Courtney says. ''We haven't been given any special access.''

In fact, the only confirmed set is in another rural town, Matamata on the North Island. The set was closed to tourists for a month last year during filming.

Ian Brodie, author of the Rings location guide books, is writing a new Hobbit guide, to be released before Christmas 2013. Until then, ''I am in total lockdown. I can't say anything,'' says Brodie, who is New Zealand's most successful non-fiction author. So far, he has sold 500,000 location guides.

This year, Brodie's work was translated into German and he has just returned from RingCon, a fan fantasy convention in Bonn. ''There were people dressed up as trees, as every character from the Lord of the Rings, as True Blood people. There was Leonardo da Vinci with a camera. My wife and I were the odd ones out in civvies.''

Brodie's day job is media and communications manager for Hobbiton Movie Set Tours. He believes there are many new audiences for the Hobbit films and Hobbit tourism. ''New Zealand is indelibly stamped with Middle Earth,'' he says.