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Asian countries like China, India and Vietnam were the growth destinations for New Zealand tourists last year.

The numbers going to such places are still relatively small - especially compared with the throngs heading to Australia or Fiji - but they are climbing fast.

In the past 10 years, for instance, the number of Kiwis going to China has rocketed from 4775 to 50,406 a year.

Last year alone, according to the latest Statistics New Zealand figures, the number of us heading to the Middle Kingdom rose by more than 30 per cent compared with 2004.

In recent years China has recorded by far the biggest increase of any destination thanks to a combination of easier access, the booming Chinese economy and closer links between the two countries.

There have also been impressive increases for Vietnam (up from a mere 1080 10 years ago to 6051 last year) and India (up from 3862 to 20,869).

In that period the number of New Zealanders making overseas trips each year has more than doubled from 823,834 to 1.87 million.

But the trend towards those Asian destinations is equally impressive as a proportion of the number of trips made.

Ten years ago only 0.6 per cent of people heading overseas said China would be their main destination; last year that quadrupled to 2.7 per cent.

Similarly, India's share of the market has doubled from 0.5 to 1 per cent and Vietnam's has trebled from 0.1 to 0.3 per cent.

The increases are all the more noteworthy because these days travellers are spreading their wings more widely and many popular destinations are losing market share as a result.

The only other significant destinations recorded as having increased their share of Kiwi holidaymakers over the past 10 years are Thailand and South Korea, Australia, the Cook Islands, South Africa, Ireland, France and Italy.

Australia remains the overwhelming choice - half of the Kiwis who went overseas last year said that was their main destination - though obviously not all of those were on holiday.

But China has already overtaken places like the Cook Islands, Thailand and Samoa to become our fifth most popular destination and the way it is growing in popularity it's easy to imagine it moving past the United Kingdom and the United States - both have been losing market share in recent years - to move into third place.

Part of the growth is a result of other Asian destinations like Hong Kong, Japan and Indonesia losing popularity. But local travel operators say it is also because New Zealanders are showing increased interest in Asia generally.

Charlotte Porter, marketing manager of Holiday Shoppe, says their figures show travel to Asia is up by 20 per cent this year.

Flight Centre's Asia product manager Liz Johnston reckons the arrival of Asian airlines and increased opportunities for stopovers en route to more traditional destinations like Europe have been a big factor in growing interest in Asia.

"After spending time in Hong Kong or Bangkok it's hard not to want to go back and see a little more."

But, she adds, having become familiar with countries like Thailand, Kiwi travellers are starting to go further afield to gain new experiences.

"Vietnam and China were closed off for so long, but now New Zealanders are jumping at the chance to check these countries out."

When you add in the fact that it is still cheap to travel round most Asian countries "the region offers a package that's pretty hard to beat".

House of Travel Asia product manager Geoff Grogan says the growth in travel to Asia last year was significant given the problems created by the Boxing Day tsunami.

"But for that it would have been even higher."

So long as there aren't any more bird flu scares, that trend is likely to strengthen over the next few years.

As the Kiwi dollar weakens, cheaper destinations like China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are likely to seem increasingly attractive compared with the high-cost countries of Europe and North America - and in my opinion they're every bit as interesting.

- NZ Herald

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