A group of Chinese tourists say a rogue tour operator in Auckland promised them visits to farms, geyser parks and buffet dinners - but instead took them to free public facilities and charitable events, including the City Mission's annual Christmas dinner.
Ming Xi, a visitor from Wuhan, said he and 10 other Chinese tourists were taken to the City Mission lunch by the tour leader, who told them the event was an annual "buffet treat" the New Zealand Government organised for citizens and visitors.
Their presence at the dinner - intended for people unable to afford a Christmas meal - caused widespread outrage when it was revealed.
Mr Xi, who is in his 50s, arrived last month as part of a tour group on a four-day North Island tour.
He decided to extend his visit to "experience how Christmas was celebrated in a Western country".
He was approached by the Mandarin-speaking tour leader as he left the i-Site Visitor Information Centre in Quay St, Auckland, the week before Christmas and offered a discounted daily rate of $88 a person for the tour, which included meals and all activities and entry charges.
Mr Xi had other tour brochures, but this operator said he could do the same tours for less than half the price.
The itinerary would include visits to a wildlife reserve, a farm park, gardens and a geyser park, and meals would include a Kiwi barbecue, a cultural dinner and a grand Christmas buffet.
"I thought it was a real bargain, but the main reason we decided to go with him was because we thought it would be handy to have a local guide who spoke Mandarin," he said.
"I was shocked to find out later from media reports that the Christmas lunch was a charity lunch for the poor and homeless, and that most of the places we had been taken to were free and were not meant for tourists."
A TVNZ Christmas Day news report said Chinese tourists on organised tours were among the 2800 people at the Viaduct Events Centre for the annual charity lunch.
The Kiwi barbecue was a sausage sizzle at a public barbecue pit, and the cultural dinner was a vegetarian meal at an "Indian" spiritual gathering where the group were asked to chant, sing and dance before eating, Mr Xi said.
He could not remember the names of the other places, but from his descriptions they could be Western Springs, Ambury Farm Park, the Auckland Botanic Gardens and, in Rotorua, the thermal Kuirau Park.
A Tourism New Zealand official said the tour company involved, Xing Yu (Lucky Jade) Sightseeing, was not a licensed tour operator under its Approved Destination Status (ADS) group-tours scheme.
"This appears to be a case where visitors have independently decided to pay for a service from someone they met in the street, which proved unsatisfactory," said corporate affairs general manager Chris Roberts.
He said most Chinese visitors came to New Zealand as part of ADS tours, and licensed operators had to adhere to a code of conduct.
Failure to do so could result in a suspension.
"As an example, charges for services or entrance to attractions, activities, venues or other places which are free of charge is strictly prohibited under the code," Mr Roberts said.
The tourism manager at Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development, Jason Hill, said the industry had been "working very hard" to try to keep non-accredited operators out of the market.
He said international visitors should book their tours and activities through the official visitor information network, the i-Sites, and look out for operators with the Qualmark sign.
*A grand Christmas buffet, cultural dinner and a great Kiwi barbecue
*Admission to a farm park with farm shows, shearing and milking
*Visit to a wildlife reserve with endangered native birds
*Geysers, mud pools and a soak in Rotorua hot mineral pool
What they got
*Auckland City Mission charity Christmas lunch
*Vegetarian dinner by an "Indian" spiritual group, for which they had to chant, sing and dance
*A sausage sizzle on a public barbecue pit
*Council-funded Ambury Farm Park and Western Springs
*Rotorua's public Kuirau Park and a soak at its free foot bath