The double-digit days is over but growth in Chinese inbound numbers is still at a 'nice sustainable level'.

The days of double-digit increases may have passed, yet the number of Chinese visitors arriving at Auckland Airport each year continues to rise at a healthy pace.

Scott Tasker, the airport's general manager of Aeronautical Commercial, says he remains positive about the future prospects for the business and says the current, smaller annual increase is sustainable.

"We're now well over the 400,000 mark for visitors from China. That's up 7 per cent on 2018. There are those who thought the double-digit growth rate would continue, but no-one working here believed it would continue indefinitely.

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"A lot of the strong double-digit growth that we saw in the years from 2014 through to 2017 was enabled by a rapid rise in the number of airlines offering direct flights from China. Today we are ticking along at a growth rate of between 5 and 10 per cent. It is a nice, sustainable level."

Tasker says the fundamentals underlying sustained visitor number growth look good. China expects to see 203 million overseas trips depart in 2020 — that's up from 130 million in 2013. Between now and 2026 China's airlines expect to take delivery of a further 7200 aircraft, which means they are investing in anticipation of many more Chinese travelling overseas.

Other pointers give the same message. A further 350,000 citizens will join China's middle class by 2022. In 2012 only 2.8 per cent of Chinese had passports. That figure is now 9.4 per cent.

Tasker says New Zealand is well placed to capitalise on this expansion in Chinese overseas travel. And the changing nature of Chinese travellers is also working to our advantage.

As recently as 2015 around three quarters of Chinese visitors to New Zealand and Australia came as part of group tours.

"In a relatively short period of time that has changed. In 2018 only 36 per cent arrived as part of group tours, the other 64 per cent were independent travellers.

"That change is important for our tourism sector; independent travellers are the premium sector. They stay longer, spend more and disperse across the country".

This change has even fuelled the building of more high quality hotels in New Zealand.

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Tasker says independent travellers can often come as family groups; "They hire cars, they take road trips and sometimes they stay in Air BnB accommodation."

Tasker says it was the increase in direct flights to and from China that unleashed fast rising numbers in recent years. Those routes are a key enabler and remain vital if New Zealand is to stay competitive in this market.

At the time of writing a total of seven airlines fly six routes between New Zealand and China.

"All together there are up to 41 direct flights a week between Auckland and mainland China with up to another 21 each week flying to Hong Kong," Says Tasker. "We're really well served and it gives us a great opportunity to grow the visitor numbers from China. It also helps facilitate high-value trade."

He says it is especially helpful that New Zealand is so well-connected to the Chinese mega-cities. "You need to make it as easy as possible for visitors to get here. They have many other destinations to choose from — in places like Australia, Canada and Europe. It doesn't get much easier than a direct flight.

"There are up to 12 flights a week into Guangzhou; this gives us great access into Guangdong province. That's with China Southern. It was the first Chinese airline to offer direct services here, back in 2012.

"Next door in Guangdong province we also have Hainan Airlines, which flies to Auckland from Shenzhen.

"We also have direct flights to Shanghai, the largest destination in China. That's covered by Air New Zealand which has daily flights and by China Eastern which also flies daily. Air China operates flights up to daily frequency from the capital: Beijing.

Scott Tasker. Photo / Supplied
Scott Tasker. Photo / Supplied

"Sichuan Airlines has been flying here since 2017. It flies three times a week to Chengdu. There are also seasonal services."

The rapid growth isn't just about inbound travellers. Tasker says the number of New Zealanders travelling to China is also increasing fast. He says: "We've seen strong outbound travel to China with 132,000 travelling to China in 2018. The growth is really strong, it was up 16 per cent last year.

As with inbound traffic, Tasker says the number of direct flights have made all the difference, with New Zealanders now visiting a wider variety of Chinese destinations.

People travel to China for many reasons. Tasker says 26 per cent of New Zealanders going there are on holiday while about 15 per cent visit for business reasons. About half travel to visit friends and relatives. This is a reflection of the fantastic Chinese resident population; there are almost 200,000 Mandarin speakers in Auckland, for example.

Though there's every reason to be positive that growth will continue, the Chinese economy is changing and that brings challenges, Tasker says.

"We need to be realistic. There appears to be a purposeful economic change by the Chinese authorities. they are now moving into a phase of more productive economic growth driven by technology and private sector investment, with less subsidised growth.

"That means over the next year or so there may be a little less consumer optimism in China. That could impact the total outbound Chinese travel."

To date the impact of those changes has been mixed. Tasker says December and January saw fewer Chinese group visitors arrive than in previous years. Yet at the same time there was stronger than anticipated growth in premium visitors.

Earlier this month Tasker was part of an Auckland Airport team China visit where executives discussed business prospects.

"We had high-level meetings with many of our Chinese airline partners. All the people we speak to feel positive. The airlines are all talking about how well their services to New Zealand are performing.

"They see continued positive strong demand for their customers to come to the country.

"It feels like business as usual. It feels like New Zealand continues to be an attractive destination.

"The airlines remain positive about flying here".