Last year a total of 140 million air passengers departed from China. Some 355,000 — about 0.2 per cent — of them flew to Auckland. Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood says the numbers show untapped potential for New Zealand's tourism sector.
"Today, our share is just a small fraction of a big market. It means our opportunity to grow is huge. If we could move the dial from 0.2 per cent to 0.4 per cent of that total, our China numbers would double. At the moment Chinese arrivals make up 10 per cent of the total at Auckland Airport. An increase in that number would make a difference, he says.
China is Auckland Airport's most recent success story. Littlewood says all New Zealand's main travel markets show high growth, but with passenger movements from the country climbing 25 per cent in the past year, China is by far the most important.
"North Asia is solid. We've seen numbers from Korea up 20 per cent. Even Japan, which was a bright spot before declining has sprung back into life with numbers up 20 per cent.
We're getting 12 per cent more from the US. Yet China is the stand-out. We're seeing first-hand the results of the economic transformation. These people are sophisticated, well-connected travellers."
He says with mobile phones and a wealth of online travel information, the incoming wave of Chinese tourists is not like any previous growth market. "They are more confident about seeing New Zealand. There are still tour groups, but more often they come as independent travellers. That is good because it is the best way to see New Zealand. We don't just want to win a higher share of Chinese passengers; we need to make sure we attract the right kind of tourist to New Zealand."
Littlewood says Auckland Airport's growth is down to a wider effort. Everyone in the tourism sector plays a part, including airlines, the hotels and the government.
"New Zealand was one of the first countries to have a more advanced visa system for Chinese visitors. Making it easy to visit is important. Many other countries don't take it seriously enough and that can act as an inhibitor. Among other things, our visa documentation is in Mandarin."
China is the stand-out. We're seeing first-hand the results of the economic transformation. These people are sophisticated, well connected travellers.
Another way of making New Zealand an easy destination for Chinese visitors is to ensure there are plenty of direct flights.
In the past New Zealand was often tacked on as an option for Chinese tourists visiting Australia. They often came here on package tours. Littlewood says at that time, the average length of stay for a Chinese tourist in New Zealand was three days. Thanks to more direct flights and the rise of independent tourism, they now stay an average of eight and a half days.
In April last year there were 17 direct flights a week between Auckland Airport and mainland China. That has almost doubled in the last year. There are now 32 direct flights a week.
Air New Zealand has had direct flights to Shanghai for a decade, the service is now daily.
China Southern Airlines has been flying to Auckland for five years. In the past year it increased its Guangzhou service from 10 flights a week to 14. China Eastern Airlines now has a new daily year-round service to Shanghai. Air China flies four times a week on a recently launched Beijing direct route. This service will rise to daily during the peak season.
One advantage of Chinese tourism is that their seasons overlap, but don't coincide, with New Zealand's biggest source of tourism. Australians prefer to visit during the Christmas and New Year holidays. Littlewood says as the Australians go back home, the Chinese turn up for their New Year holidays, which are in late January and February.
Littlewood says the key is to ensure Chinese direct routes are sustainable over the long term. He says; "Once a route starts, you have to keep the planes full." Auckland Airport is involved in an initiative to do that by encouraging Chinese tourists to visit New Zealand in winter.
He has built a campaign around skiing and winter sports. "Winter is important because it is a long season. It helps that China will host the Winter Olympics in 2022. Skiing is growing fast in Northern China. Bringing out of season Chinese tourists to the ski fields helps local operators who depend on the school holidays and weekends for their business."