Tourism earnings have soared to edge out dairy as New Zealand's top export earner for the first time since 2010.

Spending by international tourists grew by almost 20 per cent on the previous year while domestic tourism spending grew by 7.4 per cent giving the sector a $3.8 billion increase on last year.

Statistics New Zealand national accounts senior manager Daniel Griffiths said a strong growth in overseas visitors along with a buoyant domestic market contributed to the growth.

"Increasing visitor numbers from across key international markets, on the back of expanding airline and cruise capacity, drove the increase in spending by international tourists," Griffiths said.


By comparison, dairy earned New Zealand $12.3b in the same period.

Tourism accounted for 5.6 per cent of GDP with a direct contribution of $12.9b while directly employing 188,136 people - 7.5 per cent of the total number of people employed in New Zealand.

In April Prime Minister John Key tipped tourism to take over dairy due to new markets like China opening up to New Zealand.

"Exports were down down $3 billion mainly because of what's been happening around the world and in China. I think it does vary a little bit, but we are very optimistic about tourism," he said.

"You have these low-cost carriers, cheaper fuel prices, more efficient planes - you've got a lot of drivers bringing more international tourists."

Last year tourism numbers receipts were over $11.7b while dairy trumped with $14.1b.