The LOTR films were one of the biggest reasons I decided to visit NZ as well (in 2004) when I went to Australia. I saw a lot of locations around Queenstown and Arrowtown, and had a wonderful time. I saw a bunch of places which basically looked just as they did in the films, because they hadn't been CGI-tinkered with much. I 100% agree that the landscapes and lands became like an essential "character" in the films. That's exactly how I thought of it, and it's a big reason why the films were so much more enthralling than the new Star Wars films, for instance, which were CGI to the max. Frequently, scenes and places looked just as I'd pictured them in the books, or if not, I also found the interpretations extremely valid. And the "realness" of the landscapes and scenes throughout the films made the whole thing feel more like history than fantasy, which is just what Tolkien was going for.