A new study says international students are an "untapped opportunity" for regions outside Auckland.
The study by economic consultants Infometrics says the regions are capturing only one-third of the $3.6 billion annual economic value of international students, despite having two-thirds of the country's population.
Dunedin is the only city outside Auckland where international students contribute more than the national average of 1.7 per cent of regional economic output. Foreign students contribute 2.7 per cent of output in Auckland, 2 per cent in Dunedin, 1.15 per cent in Rotorua, and less everywhere else.
"Leveraging the future demand for international students is a large and, in some cases, untapped opportunity for districts and regions around New Zealand," Infometrics said.
"But to attract students who could have a considerable impact on their local economy, New Zealand's regions need to be competitive.
Attracting students is often not all about having world-class education programmes, but the entire experience."
Education NZ chief executive Grant McPherson said the regions could offer quite different experiences from Auckland.
"What we are trying to communicate to key markets is that New Zealand has a range of opportunities," he said.
"Yes, you can get a big city experience. Or you can go all the way down to places like Queenstown and others to get a smaller experience that could have a much greater focus on the outdoors rather than in classrooms."
Unsurprisingly, six of the top seven regions for international students are the university centres of Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington, Waikato, Otago and Manawatu.
Canterbury and Manawatu come close behind Auckland, Dunedin and Rotorua in terms of the value of foreign students for the local economies, both at 1.1 per cent.
But the surprise is that the Bay of Plenty comes in sixth in international students, despite not having a university, apart from a branch of Waikato University in Tauranga.
Its 4993 international students in 2015-16 directly supported 494 jobs and contributed $118 million to the regional economy - $68 million (0.78 per cent of local output) in Tauranga and the Western Bay, and $48 million (1.15 per cent of local output) in Rotorua.
Virgil Iraia, Rotorua-based president of the student body at the regional polytechnic Toi Ohomai, said the overseas students made Rotorua campus life more vibrant.
"There's kind of a buddy system, domestic students pairing up with international students, and also international students learning the way that local students study," he said.
In Tauranga, primary, secondary and tertiary-level schools collaborate to market the region through Education Tauranga. Its chairman, Greenpark School principal Graeme Lind, said primary schools had established a "niche market" in South Korea through two local agents, the Tauranga Korean Times and Vision.
"The majority of primary schools in Tauranga now have Korean students and we have created what I believe is a niche market in that we only put one person from each nationality per class," he said.
From Korea to Tauranga for clean air
A South Korean family who are all studying in Tauranga say the best thing about the city is its clean air.
Juha Song, 42, and his wife Soryun Kim are studying English, and their 9-year-old daughter Ellia Song attends Greenpark School.
"I didn't want to go to Auckland. I think that Auckland is very crowded and also expensive for life, so I prefer to live in Tauranga," Juha Song said.
"Compared to South Korea, the quality of air is very clean here, and you can feel that dirty air in South Korea, especially Seoul. And also the weather here is very nice.
"In South Korea I worked about 15 years and during that time I didn't have any time with my family members, I just had time with my daughter during the weekends. So I was very disappointed with the quality of my life in South Korea.
"So I moved to here and nowadays I can spend time with my family."
Kim already knew another Korean family in Tauranga, and Song gathered details about local schools from an Education Tauranga representative at an education fair in Korea. The family arrived in December on student visas.
"I chose this city because I heard that there will be one international student per class, so I think it can be a good experience for my daughter," Song said.
"At first when she entered the primary school she cried, but nowadays she made some friends and she is enjoying now."
Song, who was an accountant in Seoul, is studying at the Bay of Plenty English Language School and planned to study quantity surveying at the local polytechnic Toi Ohomai because it was on the Immigration NZ skill shortage list.
The family is paying more than $15,000 a year for Ellia's school fees and would pay almost $20,000 a year at Toi Ohomai.
However their plans are now in doubt because new immigration policies announced last week have reduced the weighting given to skills in short supply.
Now Song says: "If I think there will be no opportunities in here, maybe I need to move to South Korea."