Today, a small but significant group of tourists arrive at Auckland Airport.
The party of 61 travellers on a China Southern flight from Guangzhou represents the start of the return of group tourism from China for the first time in more than three years.
“What this signals is the final piece and the part of the puzzle and reinstating people-to-people connectivity between China and New Zealand,” said the airport’s chief customer officer Scott Tasker.
There has been a trickle of visitors from China but these have been people reuniting with family, and business travellers. Now, New Zealand’s place on the 20-country list of approved destinations for Chinese group travel had given this country a head start, said Tasker.
“This is a milestone [and] and it will tick up over winter, which will be very helpful for our tourism industry.”
Between 150,000 and 200,000 Chinese visitors are expected during the next 12 months, about 40-50 per cent of pre-Covid numbers. The speed of the recovery of what was this country’s second-biggest tourism market before the pandemic will depend largely on how quickly airlines increase their capacity.
The Chinese mainland airlines are rebuilding rapidly, and with Air New Zealand, by May there will be 21 flights a week linking Auckland to China. While that is well short of the 45-plus flights a week at the peak before the pandemic, Tasker says it is a strong recovery given the options airlines have on other routes.
Not only is it good news for inbound tourism, but the return of the big Chinese carriers, China Eastern and China Southern, and the possibility of others joining them, was also good news for travellers out of New Zealand.
“Let’s not forget that the Chinese airlines provide some really good options and competition for travel to the rest of Asia, connecting through their hubs as well as to destinations in the UK and Europe.”
The return of Chinese visitors comes at a time when other airlines such as American and Air Canada are about to end their summer season flights to New Zealand. The China flights ramp up during shoulder season and into winter.
“That’s really helpful for our tourism industry,” said Tasker. “The Chinese recovery over the winter will continue to drive cashflow and will enable tourism businesses to continue to invest in people and other resources as they prepare for next summer’s peak season. So that’s quite meaningful.”
In the year before the pandemic, there were 407,000 arrivals from China. On average, holiday visitors spent $4432 each, for a total of about $1.2 billion.
They visited three regions on average, and 67 per cent of them travelled outside the peak seasons.
Tourism New Zealand’s International general manager Angela Blair said New Zealand was in a very strong competitive position. The organisation’s latest research revealed there were 38 million Chinese with the ability to travel who were actively considering a trip to New Zealand during the next three years.
While group tours were important, the pre-Covid trend towards free and independent travel was continuing.
More Chinese were indicating an interest in cycling, hiking and skiing, which had grown more popular in China during the nearly three years when borders were closed. The gradual recovery would be helpful for tourism operators and other suppliers who were stretched over summer as other markets had come back strongly.
Tourism New Zealand has maintained a presence in China throughout the pandemic and was pitching this country as a place for those seeking adventure and an enriching cultural experience. During recent devastating storms in New Zealand, social media promotion was paused but there had been no noticeable impact on bookings, said Blair.