These are lean times for tourism. One of the few bright spots on the horizon is China, where increasing numbers of wealthy residents are looking to visit other countries now that they are permitted to do so. New Zealand is competing with 140 other destinations to attract them and appears to be doing quite well.
Heavy investment by airlines and airports has seen Chinese visitor numbers grow from about 30,000 in 2000 to around 180,000 this year. The Chinese do not stay long - an average of six days, 10 fewer than the average overall - but their total spending while here exceeds that of British visitors, making China already our second largest tourism market, behind Australia.
China's largest airline, Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines, began daily flights to Auckland a year ago and its promotion of this destination has been credited with much of the growth. It is bringing 250 Chinese travel agents to Auckland next month to see the region's attractions and meet business leaders.
What a pity then, that the Government has done a deal with China Southern to relax visa requirements for its frequent flyer card holders, raising questions in Parliament last week. In itself, the deal sounds innocuous - passengers wealthy enough to be frequent flyers will not face the usual requirement to show they have sufficient funds to support themselves - but Immigration New Zealand should not be doing this sort of deal with a single airline no matter how beneficial it has been. Immigration Minister Nathan Guy said the visitors would still need a visa to enter and still face health and character checks. But the deal has worried the department's Intelligence Risk and Integrity Division which is annoyed that it was not consulted until the discussions were well advanced.
Its manager said in an internal memo leaked to Winston Peters: "One of the key risks is imported criminality but because this is not a recognised adverse outcome for Immigration NZ it seems to be ignored." The manager believed the deal "sets a dangerous precedent" and he said China Southern's record in supplying correct passenger information was "very patchy".
Mr Peters has thickened the plot by producing a travel magazine article in which SkyCity casino's president of international business boasts of "working closely with China Southern Airlines to bring VIP gamblers into Auckland seamlessly". The article said, "the casino was in talks to make the visa process easier".
The minister says he is not aware of any SkyCity involvement in the deal and the casino says that while it was "always talking to the Government" about easing customers' visa requirements, it was not involved in China Southern's arrangement. There is nothing to suggest the deal will allow criminals to enter the country more easily. The removal of an obligation to show evidence of sufficient funds would not make much difference to a high roller who wanted to come here to spend ill-gotten gains at the casino. The suggestion is an unfair smear on the airline and its card holders in the absence of any evidence to support it.
But it is the sort of slight the Government invites when it gets too close to a commercial operator. Its pokie deal with SkyCity is still under an Audit Office investigation.
China Southern Airlines is clearly doing well for New Zealand and itself but so is Air New Zealand on its China services. If immigration can safely do anything to ease travel it should do so for all. It should not be in one airline's favour.