The wave of Kiwi expats returning to escape the global pandemic has only just started, new research suggests.
More than 50,000 Kiwis have already returned home this year as the pandemic has ravaged the world.
But as many as 500,000 could be on their way in the next few years.
A survey of 15,000 expats by KEA (Kiwi Expats Association) found that 49 per cent were planning to come home.
About half of them said they would be returning in the next two years.
There are about 1 million New Zealanders living overseas according to StatsNZ, so the survey provides a large sample by the standards of most polls.
The survey drew on the KEA membership and its wider network of expat Kiwis, said KEA chief executive Toni Truslove.
It provided a good reflection of New Zealanders living abroad, she said, possibly skewing slightly towards those who were more settled and financially secure.
The survey was also dominated by Kiwis living in the UK - making up more than 30 per cent of respondents - ahead of Australia with around 25 per cent of respondents.
But the results suggested a "once in a lifetime, seismic shift" in population, Truslove said.
It was crucial that New Zealand prepared for what could be an incredible opportunity and also considered the challenges the new arrivals could create.
Forty-nine per cent of expats said they were planning to return and 44 per cent were staying put.
Of those planning to return, 24 per cent expected to do so in the next year, 25 per cent within two years.
Extrapolating those results to the wider pool of expats meant there could be more than 250,000 returnees in the next two years - more than enough to compensate for the sudden halt on immigration.
Covid-19 was a big driver for those who had returned and those who were planning to return.
Of those who were planning to return 51 per cent said the pandemic had prompted that view or sped up their plans.
More than half of respondents had been away for more than 10 years.
The survey also indicated the wave of arrivals is likely to be more highly skilled and politically progressive.
The data showed that the two largest categories of expertise among respondents was technology/science and the arts/creative.
This presented a real opportunity for New Zealand to capitalise and address skills shortages, Truslove said.
There were also high numbers of education and healthcare workers represented and people in financial services and infrastructure.
But the survey included some ominous signs for those hoping the current surge in housing demand will end soon.
While 20 per cent of the expats surveyed already owned a home in New Zealand, 62 per cent said they would be looking to buy in the next two years.
Around a third of those intending to return were planning to settle in Auckland but there was a good spread of interest around the country, Truslove said.
Many expats were shifting back for lifestyle reasons or to reconnect with family.
Some 60 per cent said they intended to return to the region where they previously lived.
More promising on the investment front was that 20 per cent said they wanted to invest in a local business and, of those that returned in the past year, 11 per cent had started their own business.
This was the first major survey of this kind that had been undertaken by KEA, Truslove said.
She hoped it would be the start of a push to collect more data on returning Kiwis, something economists have noted is lacking when they look at changes Covid-19 is making to the country.