International tourism has taken the top spot from the dairy industry as the economy's biggest export sector, a report from Statistics New Zealand shows.
The Tourism Satellite Account showed tourism expenditure increased 2.1 per cent in the year ended March to $22.4 billion, with spending by international tourists up 1.6 per cent to $9.5 billion.
Statistics New Zealand national accounts manager Rachael Milicich said a rise in visitor numbers from Oceania, predominantly Australia, had been the catalyst for a return to growth in international expenditure.
Provisional data showed international tourism spending was higher than exports of dairy products and casein, which totalled $9 billion for the year ended March, down from $10 billion the previous year.
The Tourism Industry Association New Zealand (TIA) said the figures showed tourism had outstripped the dairy sector as the top export industry.
TIA policy and research manager Simon Wallace said it was an excellent result "especially given the strength of the New Zealand dollar against some of our key markets like the USA and UK".
"Together with the global financial crisis, this period covered some of the most difficult trading conditions TIA members have experienced," Wallace said.
The TIA said the figures highlighted the importance of the number one market of Australia in supporting the industry through the downturn.
"Our challenge now is to grow other key and emerging markets in Asia, North America and Europe," Wallace said.
"Given that the last two years have been really challenging and the industry's held it's position in terms of international spending, and that's also been against a very strong New Zealand dollar, you'd have to be cautiously optimistic that the industry can grow its spend over the next two or three years."
Short-term overseas visitor arrivals data for the year ended September showed five of the 10 largest markets were in Asia, with the total for the region up 11.8 per cent to 439,984 people.
Australia was up 7.3 per cent to 1.1 million, but the British and US markets were down by 6.4 per cent and 2.8 per cent respectively to 243,031 and 192,154 visitors.
Year ended March:
total tourism expenditure, up 2.1 per cent.
spend by international tourists, up 1.6 per cent.
in goods and services tax from tourists.
direct full-time equivalent employees, down
1.6 per cent.