China is New Zealand's only growing top-five tourism market and by 2014 it will have eclipsed traditional heavyweights the United States and Britain to take the No 2 spot, according to Government forecasts.
The total short-term overseas visitor arrivals for the year to the end of August was down 0.5 per cent to 2.5 million, with the Canterbury quakes and flight disruption in June because of a volcanic ash contributing to the fall, Statistics New Zealand said.
Of the top-five source countries only visitors from China increased - up 18.2 per cent to 135,062 people.
Longer-term tourism forecasts by the the Ministry of Economic Development said the Chinese tourism market would overtake the American and British markets in spending by mid-2012.
The updated forecasts said Chinese tourists would spend $604 million in 2013, overtaking both Britain and the US.
Chinese tourist numbers were forecast at 229,023 in 2014, eclipsing Britain and US, which were expected to generate 207,153 and 205,778 visitors respectively.
Total spending by visitors was forecast to rise from $5.8 billion this year to $6.6 billion in 2016, with Australia the largest market at $1.9 billion.
Tourism New Zealand chief executive Kevin Bowler said the 18.2 per cent rise in arrivals from China for the year to the end of August continued to reflect the greater interest from that market.
"We've seen increases from China every month since May 2010," Bowler said.
"This will no doubt continue to increase with China Southern Airlines increasing flight frequency from three times per week to daily commencing later this year."
Continued growth out of Singapore and Malaysia was also of interest, driven by more airline capacity from Jetstar Asia and Air Asia X and more marketing focus.
Visitors from Malaysia were up 48.6 per cent at 29,772 for the year, making it New Zealand's tenth biggest market.
"Decreases in arrivals from the USA, Korea and Japan are not unexpected considering the ongoing impacts of the global financial crisis, and the earthquakes in Japan and Christchurch," Bowler said.
"We look forward to seeing further increases in international visitor arrivals for the Rugby World Cup, giving many New Zealand businesses a boost during the tourism industry's shoulder season."By Owen Hembry Email Owen