Tourism New Zealand is leveraging the global profile of The Hobbit by promoting the Middle-earth fantasy as an attainable experience to prospective Chinese tourists.
"New Zealand features on the bucket lists of many international travellers," says TourismNZ chief executive Kevin Bowler.
"The key is providing them with an incentive to actually make the trip, and the Middle-earth campaign provides an opportunity to do just that."
Bowler explains large-scale events such as the 2011 Rugby World Cup can act as both a drawcard and deterrent for tourists. As these one-off feature events tend to come with astronomical prices, travellers are forced to trade off their enjoyment with the reality of tightened purse-strings. The relative cheapness of attractions associated with The Hobbit means Chinese tourists can experience New Zealand without being expected to pay excessive amounts.
In February alone, 31,536 short-term visitors from China set foot on New Zealand shores. This offset a weaker January, largely the result of the timing of the Lunar New Year, and represented a 106 per cent increase on 2012.
Tourists from the world's most populous nation could prove to be a saving grace to an industry that has suffered in recent years from the dual impact of a high exchange rate and increasing costs of long-haul flights.
However, Bowler stresses the focus must be on the quality of visitor stays, as opposed to simply chasing visitor numbers. For Chinese tourists, New Zealand has tended to be a "tag-on" to an Australian vacation. This results in shorter trip durations and less lucrative travel arrangements, and tends to concentrate the resulting economic benefit in major gateways like Auckland.
"Our strategy in targeting China is two-pronged," Bowler says. "We're trying to create a premium image of New Zealand as a destination, but also to focus on the trade aspect of the relationship. We can't underestimate the value of selling product bundles."
TourismNZ is forming "Premier Kiwi Partnerships" with agents in China to market mono-New Zealand holidays; visits of seven to 10 days that involve a more independent travel experience, distinct from Australia. There are currently 18 Chinese agents and approximately 7000 visitors who have entered New Zealand through such arrangements in 2012. This number is expected to snowball, as the image of New Zealand as a premium international destination grows. Additional boosts are expected as TourismNZ rolls out its strategy to tier two Chinese cities.
Encouraging Chinese tourists to move past the primary destination of Auckland can bring increased revenue through internal flights and travel arrangements, as well as providing provincial centres with the opportunity to cash in on the potential of this growing market.
But says Bowler, it is important to educate visitors that seeing New Zealand takes time. "The focus must be on developing a quality travel experience, and education is key. Most international travellers don't realise how much there is to do and see in New Zealand, outside the main centres. Getting a quality New Zealand experience takes more than four or five days."
Already there are increasing numbers of Chinese visiting Queenstown and the number of "free independent travellers" seeking a more Western ised travel experience is growing.
The growing network of Chinese students here also provide de-facto tourism guide services to the visitors, which Bowler cites as a cause of the rising number of independent travellers.
A partnership with Chinese celebrity Yao Chen has played an important role in building the New Zealand brand in China. And the boost in tourism numbers can be attributed in part to the increased presence of the China Southern airline. China Southern's daily flights between Auckland and Guangzhou have complemented the increased focus of Air New Zealand on the Shanghai market.
These two factors have culminated in higher capacity on the supply side of the airline industry.
Naturally there are challenges in targeting the Chinese market, not least the difficulty of marketing in a country with such a large and diverse population. Airlines operating China to New Zealand services are also confronted by the difficulties of operating in an asymmetric market, with a much greater number of incoming, rather than outgoing tourists. "Airlines operate most efficiently in symmetrical markets," Bowler explains. "The US to New Zealand service is a great example of this."
Despite this, it is clear that tourism links between the two nations will continue to feature as an important asset to TourismNZ's international strategy.
• 31,536 Chinese visitors came to NZ in February alone, which was a 106 per cent increase from the previous year
• 7000 visitors from China entered last year on "Premier Kiwi Partnerships" travel arrangements
• 18 Chinese agents are currently involved in these partnerships
Correction: An earlier version of this story had transposed the monthly number for Chinese visitors in February with the annual figure.