New Zealand could win from cooling relations between China and the United States, says one of China's biggest travel websites.
Ctrip has more than 20 per cent of the outbound Chinese market and has renewed a deal with Tourism New Zealand to help promote this country in the lead-up to the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism.
China is New Zealand's fastest-growing visitor market, growing at 13 per cent in the year to June and on track to become the biggest by value by the middle of next decade. This follows a pause in growth last year.
A Ctrip vice president, Victor Tseng, says 2019 will help focus attention on New Zealand.
''People are travelling to the southern hemisphere - we will spend a bit more time working more and more with Tourism New Zealand to encourage them to go in different seasons,'' he says.
Travel by Chinese tourists is susceptible to global threats such as terrorism, and tense relations with the US could stall travel to that country, which had been growing strongly. A full-blown trade war between the two countries is threatening to break out and there has been growing military tension.
''If there are any changes to the United States - there are other destinations they could go to, they could go to New Zealand and Australia or Europe,'' says Tseng, who is based in Shanghai.
''New Zealand is already a winner and if there's any long term changes to Chinese going to the US, that spend could change.''
More than 140 million Chinese tourists took overseas trips last year and they are collectively the world's biggest spenders on international tourism, forking out US$258 billion ($387b) last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.
Ctrip is the largest online travel agent in Asia and China, with a market capitalisation of roughly US$25b. In 2016, it bought booking site Skyscanner and has more than 30,000 staff around the world.
Tseng says interest in New Zealand among Chinese is driven by movies such as the Lord of the Rings, wine, food and outdoor sports.
Revelations about Chinese visitors being ripped off by unscrupulous operators charging for free attractions would not be a deterrent. New Zealand still has a positive image, he says.
''The uniqueness and quality of a trip/travel experience is most important for the Chinese travellers. There is much demand for travel products and services that are diverse and unique.''
That made it more important to book through reputable operators such as his own company, which has access to the most experienced local operators and resources.
Lisa Li, managing director of the Auckland-based China Travel Service, says the Year of Tourism could be more than just a slogan
''There's definitely an opportunity to leverage from it,'' she says.
Although the Chinese inbound market is healthy, there has been growing resistance to relatively high prices while on the ground, but she says the year of promotion will allow operators to appeal to a broader market.
Li's travel firm also takes New Zealanders to China and the focus on two-way travel next year is likely to result in more Kiwis going to that country. The 2010 Shanghai Expo resulted in a surge of 10,000 Kiwis going to China.
Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis says the Chinese Government had approached New Zealand about the Year of Tourism.
''I see it as a great way to boost those diplomatic relationships, as well as foster deeper relationships and better cultural understanding between our countries,'' he says.
For New Zealand businesses, he says, it is a chance to focus on the Chinese market with events or promotion aimed at that market, or look at the service they provide and ways of improving the experience of Chinese visitors to New Zealand. Davis says the Government is leading the over-arching work on this in its main role as co-ordinator.
''We're talking to organisations around the country. People have all sorts of ideas, from exhibitions to making tourism the theme for Chinese Language Week.'' It had already invested $500,000 in Te Papa's Terracotta Warriors exhibition later this year.
A website has been launched and is being managed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment with resource kits.
Davis says this will be a tourism priority for MBIE, but all associated government activities would be funded through existing baselines or funds. This includes MBIE's work to manage the programme.
Davis says Chinese visitors rate their experience in New Zealand highly, and love the natural environment and the feeling of safety here.
''That said, there are areas we can improve. MBIE's International Visitor Experience Report showed Chinese visitors gave slightly lower scores than other countries to some services and amenities – things like accommodation and food and beverage outlets. So we have to make sure we're catering to the Chinese market in the best way we can,'' he says.
The campaign is not about numbers, says Davis. ''Our goal for the Year of Tourism isn't to get a big lift in the number of Chinese visitors we're seeing. That market is already pretty healthy.
"We're focused on attracting high-value visitors. By 'high-value' I don't just mean visitors who spend more – we want people who come outside of that peak summer season and who explore more of our regions.''
During the past year, Tourism New Zealand ran a successful regional campaign for Wellington, Tasman, Nelson and Marlborough in China, viewed by more than 11 million people there.
This year the organisation brokered an initiative that resulted in 6000 China Amway staff travelling to New Zealand in waves of 500 over several weeks.
International Visitor Survey figures show the total spend for the year to June 30 was $1.66b and the average spend was $4000. Although down 1.0 per cent on the previous year, that is still twice the average spend by visitors from Australia, New Zealand's biggest tourism market.