John Key took on the tourism portfolio in 2008 and the industry praised his work in the role.

Tourism has this year usurped dairy as the country's top foreign exchange earner and industry leaders say Key's profile has helped.

"While his availability to get around the country as tourism minister was affected (by being prime minister) it would be hard to find anyone in the industry who wasn't impressed by him," said Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts.

Previous tourism ministers had a much lower ranking in Cabinet.

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"On every overseas trip he has done there was a tourism element to it and he was able to clear some hurdles at prime minister to prime minister level," said Roberts.

"The tourism industry was grateful he took the portfolio in 2008 and gave it profile much in the same way that Helen Clark did with culture and heritage."

He had "very capable" associate ministers who were able to support him with the detail of the portfolio.

In 2013 Key boosted the Tourism New Zealand budget by $158 million over three years.

"The big boost to the tourism marketing budget to position New Zealand was welcome. The introduction of the border clearance levy (last year) was less welcome."

Roberts said Key had been personally affected by the letters from relatives of people who had died in adventure tourism accidents.

This had helped lead to a world standard health and safety regime.

Tourism Export Council chief executive Lesley Immink said Key was a charismatic leader and tourism minister and an ''incredible" ambassador for New Zealand.

"New Zealand is firmly positioned on the global stage as an innovative and great country to do business with, that serves to complement our spectacular tourism offerings," she said.

Roberts said he looked forward to Key's successor also being a senior cabinet minister.