Tourist operators say partnership deal would entice more Chinese visitors and they would stay longer.

The head of China Southern Airlines wants to forge a relationship with Air New Zealand to build on each others' domestic networks.

Although both airlines compete by flying to China, the Chinese carrier's president and chief executive Tan Wan'geng said they flew to different cities and he wanted representatives of his airline to meet their Air New Zealand counterparts to discuss his plans.

An agreement with Air New Zealand could be a coup for that airline and this country's tourist operators wanting to capitalise on the fastest growing tourist market.

Tan's airline has flown between Auckland and the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou for the past 18 months, more than doubling services after six months.


"Right now we don't have flights within New Zealand so we hope we can co-operate with [Air] New Zealand on this," said Tan.

"Air New Zealand only flies to Shanghai and don't have enough network support. If necessary we can offer this support."

Air New Zealand said it welcomed discussions with any airlines on potential partnership activity.

"In fact, Air New Zealand already provides ground handling services to China Southern at Auckland Airport," a spokeswoman said.

The airlines are in competing carrier alliances - Air NZ is in the Star Alliance and China Southern in Sky Team - but these arrangements have become looser with deals between airlines becoming more common.

Although it is not clear how far any co-operation between the two airlines could go in other cases it has ranged from ground handling deals to ticketing arrangements where one carrier can sell tickets for another, through to code sharing where they effectively share aircraft.

A link with a New Zealand domestic carrier would be welcomed by tourist operators as more seamless travel around the country could entice more Chinese to visit but, equally importantly, encourage them to stay longer. While the China market grew by 30 per cent over the past year, most of the 180,000 visitors tack New Zealand on to a trip to Australia and spend between two and three nights here.

Tan said New Zealand was a key part of the airline's Australasian strategy and the now daily Auckland service was performing well.

China Southern is the world's third largest airline as measured by passengers carried and Asia's largest airline in both fleet size and passengers.

It will soon take delivery of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner and would consider using it on the New Zealand route. Plans are in place to use it to fly to Australian cities.

Tan was in Auckland with a group of the airline's top travel and sales agents last week, mainly from China but also from Europe, the United States, Africa and other parts of Asia, business leaders and elite frequent flyers. During the five-day visit arranged by Auckland Airport and supported by other tourist agencies they sampled a number of North Island attractions.

He said China's growing middle class had a strong appetite to travel overseas, with 100 million taking trips last year.

While the number of Chinese meant aircraft were 83 per cent full, the number of New Zealanders flying with the airline to China and beyond was comparatively low, with Kiwis filling about 20 per cent of planes out of Auckland.

Restrictions on transit visas have just been relaxed in Beijing. China has named New Zealand as one of 45 countries whose people will be allowed to stay in Beijing visa-free for up to three days during a transit break from a trip to another destination and it was hoped the same can be done in Guangzhou.

Tan said the airline was pushing for an extension from 24 hours to 72 hours and he was optimistic of a deal being announced soon.

A deal with the government here allows some China Southern frequent flyers to skip a part of the visa form in a scheme similar to that used by another Chinese carrier in 10 cities around the world, including in Australia.

Last week China Southern signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Tourism NZ and Auckland Airport that sets out initiatives and a commitment to increase international tourism and trade potential for both countries.

"We realise the significant opportunity for New Zealand tourism in assisting China Southern to expand its service with Auckland, and we are thrilled the airline has reciprocated by pledging its commitment to New Zealand in the form of the MOU agreement," said the airport's chief executive, Adrian Littlewood.

China Southern Airlines

*Carried more than 80m passengers last year.
*By passengers the biggest in Asia and third in the world.
*Almost 2000 daily fights to 175 destinations in 34 countries.