COMMENT:

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis should be on the first plane up to China to sort out the debacle over the launch of the China New Zealand Year of Tourism.

He should expect to meet directly with his counterpart and the heads of the Chinese National Tourism Office to get this major initiative back on track.

The fact he has not done so suggests Beijing is not according New Zealand ministerial visits priority right now (notwithstanding the obvious interruption of the Spring Festival or Lunar Year celebrations in China).

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Although Davis's office said a trip to China — which will include Maori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta — is in the early planning stages. But no date has been settled.

The National Tourism Office is the very same body which, according to Davis' own press statement on October 18 last year, was to be the official host for a planned evening celebration at Te Papa museum on the Wellington waterfront next Wednesday.

These events are planned so far out so far in advance that postponement just doesn't take place without a credible reason.

There has been more than enough time for the Chinese officials — supported by the NZ side — to get the planning in place and the tourism office's heads down to Wellington.

But as the Herald exclusively revealed yesterday, the launch has been "postponed".

Davis has since said the Chinese let the Government know a few weeks ago that there was a scheduling issue, and the event would happen eventually.

Problem is, he did not put out a statement saying so.

A "scheduling" difficulty is also the reason proffered last year when Jacinda Ardern's proposed first official visit to China as Prime Minister failed to materialise.

As Ardern said this week, the relationship between China and New Zealand is complex. Officials are working to bring both her visit and the tourism launch together.

But for the big guns of the NZ tourism and travel industry the "postponement" is a major disappointment.

They had expected to celebrate with cabinet ministers and officials, the Chinese ambassador and her officials, and the host delegation from the China National Tourism Office, in a year of promotional activities designed to boost bilateral tourism.

The tourism industry will be concerned at what is — no matter which way it is framed — a very public snub.

They will also be concerned that in this year when they had expected a major uptick in Chinese tourism numbers - overall visitor traffic from China could be flat-lining.

MBIE forecasts made in May 2018 had forecast 512,000 visitor arrivals from China in 2019.

For the year ending December 2018, 448,189 visitor arrivals came from China - up 7.3 per cent on 2017. Of the arrival total, 341,721 are estimated to be tourists - up 8.8 per cent.

Latest December figures also show visitor arrivals from China for that month were 38,001 down 1291 (3.3 per cent) on the December 2017 tally. Of the arrival total 1151 were estimated to be tourists - down 3.9 per cent.

Latest visa data for December shows a slight increase - of one per cent - for demand in that month for future travel from China.

Given Davis' optimism in October when he said more Chinese visitors are coming here than ever before, with 450,000 people visiting in the year to June 2018 and set to increase to 800,000 visitors per year by 2024, the new reality is concerning.

These "Year of Tourism" promotions are major affairs. When Australia launched its own Year of Tourism with China in early 2017, both Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sent congratulations.

Australia welcomed a record 1.33 million Chinese visitors, just shy of its largest arrivals market (New Zealand with 1.35 million), in the year ending September 2017. During the same period spending by Chinese tourists grew by 13 per cent to a record $A10.3 billion ($10.8b).

As the Turnbull Government said then, the phenomenal growth was evidence that its investment in China is paying rich dividends.

"The China Australia Year of Tourism has not only provided a platform for further diplomatic engagement with one of our most important trade partners, it has also been a key part of the larger push to promote Australia in China. Now, as a result, we are seeing significantly increased visitation and record spend from Chinese visitors."

The relationship between Australia and China became "complex" in 2018. Four months ago, Davis said New Zealand and China's shared tourism relationship is a special and enduring one and the Year of Tourism is a fitting way to celebrate this.

With this month's launch postponement and Air New Zealand now requested to submit a new application to land its Dreamliner in Shanghai, it is clear the relationship needs considerable focus to get it on track.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated for the year ending November 2018, just 414,000 arrivals had come from China. The correct figure was 449,484. The story has been updated to include the latest December 2018 figures.