Figures out today show the Chinese tourist growing at 7.3 per cent - more than twice the rate of overall market - but reports of tension between Wellington and Beijing is worrying the industry.

While one tourism leader says there's a risk of talk of tourism being targeted becoming self-fulfilling, another says there's nervousness about all international markets while one China travel specialist is urging the New Zealand government to make a symbolic gesture to repair any damage to the relationship.

A report in the Chinese government's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, ominously reported one man had cancelled a $3200 trip to New Zealand because of the rift and suggested this country had fallen out of favour with tourists.

Latest visitor figures show the number of Chinese coming here grew to 448,000, the second biggest tourism market after Australia.


In the year to last September spending by tourists from China was up 14 per cent to more than $1.6 billion.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts said there were no signs the postponement of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism function was in protest to the government's stance on China.

''People are joining the dots. I favour the idea of a cock-up rather than a conspiracy,'' he said.

''I can't comment on the state of political relations but there are no indications that New Zealand is being targeted by the Chinese government. ''There's a danger that all the current talk is becoming self-fulfilling.''

Tens of thousands of Chinese visitors here for Chinese New Year would be a ''bit bemused'' if they were following commentary in the New Zealand media.

New Zealand was a niche market among the 100 million Chinese who take trips overseas each year and there had been no expectation of a big surge in visitor numbers due to the Year of Tourism, said Roberts.

Chris Roberts, Chief Executive of Tourism Aotearoa. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Chris Roberts, Chief Executive of Tourism Aotearoa. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

''There's a danger that all the current talk is becoming self-fulfilling and that does worry me. There needs to be some response to the issue to give the assurance there is not the problem that is currently portrayed.''

The programme of events that Tourism New Zealand was running in China was going ahead and that was more important than what was happening here.


''Those are an opportunity to raise New Zealand's profile. Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis is one of the ministers believed to be in line for a visit to China this year and Roberts said it was important that this happened.

Auckland Airport is the gateway for most Chinese visitors and the company has a specialist team that spends time in China to build up business.

The airport's chief executive Adrian Littlewood said there had been no feedback from Chinese airlines on any change in attitude to New Zealand.

Personal relationships mattered in China and it was important for business leaders, officials and politicians to continue to travel there.

He said some people at the moment were trying to join dots that were disconnected.

''I think the key thing is everyone has to breathe through their noses and breathe deeply.''

A veteran of the Chinese inbound visitor market to New Zealand and Australia, Trevor Lee, managing director of TravConsult, said China can turn off the tap of tourists.

There was diplomatic friction occuring between China and quite a few other countries at present, and his firm saw this continuing for the short-mid term at least.

''No one likes to lose face or be embarrassed, and China in particular, does not like to lose face, especially in the public or the world's eyes. Canada, South Korea and Japan are some of the countries which have had political issues with China out in the open and seen a significant drop in Chinese tourist numbers.''

Lee said relationships can be repaired when face is given.

He recalled former prime minister (and tourism minister) John Key giving the ''highest level of face'' to China, when he stood on the tarmac at Auckland Airport eight years ago to personally welcome China Southern's inaugural flight.

''This was huge face given to the Chinese passengers on that flight, people in China, Chinese media and very importantly, the Chinese government.''

While not knowing the true cause behind the current tension between New Zealand and China, he said '' your current PM and her team take the time to rebuild the relationship with China, its people and government.''

Tourism Export council chief executive Judy Chen. Photo / Supplied
Tourism Export council chief executive Judy Chen. Photo / Supplied

The proportion of free, independent travellers (FITs) as opposed to group package tours was growing in New Zealand and this could help minimise the impact of any rift.

Politics did not seem to affect the Chinese FIT choice of holiday destination. Groups however can and have been affected as seen in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines where group travel dropped dramatically due to political tensions.

Another tourist group, the Tourism Export Council, said some of its members had incorporated Year of Tourism marketing material to push into China and hoped it wouldn't damage their efforts.

''Hopefully, we will see it getting on track again shortly because a number of operators have put it into their marketing to promote this initiative,'' said council chief executive Judy Chen.

Other markets had begun to slow down because of global influences - such as Brexit worry - and she hoped the China market wouldn't either. There had been no impact so far.

Ben Chapman's Tourism Partners provides business development services to tourism businesses pushing into the China market and is going there next week.

''I expect very little talk about all this.''

He said not too much could be read into the abrupt pull-out from the launch ceremony of Year of Tourism.

''Anyone who has hosted groups and delegations knows that this sometimes will happen.''

China Southern Airlines has been flying here since 2011. Photo / Greg Bowker
China Southern Airlines has been flying here since 2011. Photo / Greg Bowker

While China's government newspaper is highlighting tourism tension, state-owned China Southern this month highlighted support for the Year of Tourism and its commitment to the New Zealand market.

The airline sponsored lantern festivals in Auckland and Christchurch this year, which it said was one of a series of initiatives that the Chinese airline has invested in celebration of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism

China Southern is the first and only mainland Chinese airline flying direct routes to both Auckland and Christchurch and has poured capacity into this country since 2011.

A partnership aimed at attracting more high-value Chinese visitors to New Zealand during shoulder and off-peak seasons has been formed between Auckland's economic development agency, the bankcard scheme with the world's largest cardholder base, and Immigration New Zealand (INZ).

Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) announced today that it had signed the China – New Zealand Year of Tourism memorandum of understanding with UnionPay International and Immigration NZ to explore shared common goals.

Ateed general manager – destination, Steve Armitage, said the collaboration aims to increase visitation from the high-value Chinese free and independent segment, adding benefit to our tourism partners around the region.

In collaboration with Auckland tourism suppliers, Ateed will produce tourism packages for high-value UnionPay cardholders.