Gloomy weather on tourist front

By Tamsyn Parker

The financial crisis has hit tourism - one of New Zealand's biggest earners - causing visitor numbers to plummet last month.

Statistics New Zealand figures show the number of international tourists fell 6.6 per cent, or 11,100 people, in September compared with the same month last year.

That's the equivalent of 25 jumbo jets full of passengers.

The year to September 2008 was also down, although the drop was less than 1 per cent.

The biggest loss came from China. Visitors from there dropped by a third, falling by 2700 to 5497 in September.

China is New Zealand's fourth-largest market and Tourism New Zealand has been actively targeting it with a $7 million campaign.

Australia, New Zealand's largest tourist market, was also down 3 per cent, with 2200 fewer tourists coming compared with September last year.

Korea, Japan and the United States also continued downward trends.

The only market to see an increase was Canada, where numbers have risen from a low base on the back of Air New Zealand's new direct service launched this year.

Tourism New Zealand chief executive George Hickton blamed increasing economic uncertainty for the drop and predicted even tougher times for the year ahead.

"It is clear New Zealand tourism is facing difficult times as a result of the financial crisis and that things will be even more challenging in 2009."

Visitor numbers from China have been hit as a result of the Sichuan earthquake and Olympic Games. Government officials were banned from travelling directly after the earthquake and visa applications to New Zealand have slowed.

Hickton said Chinese tourism had taken longer than expected to recover but the outlook for summer was improving.

Tourism New Zealand is also ploughing money into advertising in Britain to try to maintain visitor levels.

But Hickton said Australia remained New Zealand's best chance of weathering the tougher economic conditions. "With long-haul travel becoming more expensive, Australians will be looking to holiday closer to home, providing a lot of opportunities for New Zealand."

Tourism Industry Association chief executive Tim Cossar said the numbers reflected the feedback coming from businesses for the past couple of months.

He said businesses were still optimistic of a positive summer and some were talking about a bounce-back in the domestic market as New Zealanders holidayed at home.

"But I don't think anyone is saying it is going to be brilliant."

Cossar said that for many tourism businesses March would be the crunch time as the summer peak season comes off and the sharp reality of winter hits.

ASB economist Jane Turner said the fall in September had been quite sharp but what was more worrying was the year decline, which was in negative territory for the first time in two years.

"With declining global growth in the outlook for Australia and the UK - they are all taking less holidays."

But Turner said the recent drop in New Zealand's dollar had been good news for the tourism industry.

"In the short term that should boost the spend in New Zealand. We have already seen the number of days here increase."

International tourists spent $8.8 billion in New Zealand in the year to March 2007, putting tourism at 18.3 per cent of total New Zealand exports.

Tourism generated a direct contribution to gross domestic product of $7.9 billion, or 5.1 per cent.

- NZ Herald

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