After a short delay, the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism is under way again, writes Bill Bennett.

Luo Shugang and Kelvin Davis launch the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, in Wellington.

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis and China's Minister of Culture and Tourism Luo Shugang kicked off the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism at a ceremony held in Wellington at Te Papa on Saturday morning.

Davis described the event as a milestone in the China-New Zealand relationship.

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"It is an important opportunity for our countries to strengthen cultural, economic and people-to-people ties through tourism."

The launch, which had been planned for two years, was originally scheduled for February but it was postponed at the last minute, just a week before it was due to start.

At the time there was speculation the delay was because of increased tensions between New Zealand and China. Notice of the delay came soon after the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) vetoed Spark's proposal to use Huawei equipment on its 5G mobile phone network.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denied tensions with China were behind the delay, saying instead that it was due to a scheduling problem.

Addressing the issue at a stand-up press conference during a break in the ceremony Davis said "I think there were a number of things that happened at the same time and people tried to convolute them into one issue".

Both tourism ministers addressed the audience at the launch and there were messages from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Davis told the audience New Zealand's relationship with China was one of the country's most important and far reaching.

"Tourism is a significant strand in our bilateral relationship." He went on to welcome Luo to New Zealand and said the two would discuss furthering co-operation in tourism.

"It's a chance for New Zealanders to show our manaakitanga — our unique hospitality that promotes diversity, inclusivity and warmth to visitors from all over the world."

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The minister said generosity was an integral part of Māori culture.

"It's important that visitors are well fed and looked after". To underline these points Luo wore a Kahu kiwi feather cloak from Te Papa's Taonga Māori collection, and at the end of the formalities the launch audience was treated to a three-course lunch.

"It is also an opportunity for all of us to learn more about China, so we can provide visitors with the best experience we can and broaden our understanding of their deep and fascinating culture," said Davis.

"These activities will help to build understanding between our peoples and cultures. I encourage all New Zealanders to take this opportunity to learn more about a country with a rich and diverse culture and history."

About 100 metres from where he was speaking, queues of tourists were forming outside Te Papa's Terracotta Warriors exhibition. This is one of the significant local cultural events linked to the Year of Tourism and is the first time the ancient Chinese statues have been seen in New Zealand for more than 30 years.

Davis said visits to the exhibition had surpassed all expectations.

A reciprocal exchange takes place later this year, with the Tuku Iho cultural visit to China.

Davis said the Year of Tourism would benefit many other sectors of the economy. "Tourism mutually reinforces trade awareness between two countries and builds people-to-people relationships. It's a lot about the people-to-people connections. If we get the relationship right then other things will flow on from there."

One goal of the Year of Tourism initiative is to better understand the changing habits and needs of Chinese tourists who visit New Zealand. That way our tourism industry can do a better job of catering for them.

"We're expecting to see more and more Chinese visitors to come," said Davis. "They're staying for longer, they're spending more. The nature of the Chinese visitor has changed from being mainly tour buses, through to now free and independent travellers."

He said China was forecast to overtake Australia as New Zealand's biggest tourist market by 2024.

The delayed launch of the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism meant the event took place two weeks after the Christchurch shootings. Much was made of this in the messages from political leaders.

In a letter read out during the ceremony, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wrote; "The recent Christchurch terrorist attacks brought into sharp relief the importance of building interactions and understanding across peoples, cultures and borders. Initiatives during the Year of Tourism reflect China and New Zealand's shared commitment to doing just that.

"Tourism is a crucial strand in our bilateral relationship, and is a particularly important driver of economic growth. There was an 8.8 per cent increase in Chinese holidaymakers to New Zealand from 2017 to 2018, and China is New Zealand's second-largest tourism market. The number of New Zealanders visiting China has also reached a new high."

Luo Shugang read Premier Li Keqiang's letter to the opening ceremony: "Tourism is an important area of our co-operation and a driving force for our peoples' mutual understanding and friendly ties.

"Chinese tourists are attracted by the scenic beauty and cultural diversity of New Zealand. Visitors from New Zealand marvel at China's natural wonders and rich heritage as an ancient civilization. Last year, around 600,000 visits were exchanged between the two countries. China remains New Zealand's second largest overseas tourist market".

Wu Xi, China's Ambassador to New Zealand returned to Davis' theme about the close relationship between tourism and trade. She reminded the audience that when Premier Li Keqiang visited New Zealand in 2017 the two countries signed agreements to co-operate on China's Belt and Road project.

"The connection between facilities and people's hearts is an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative," she said. "China-New Zealand's Belt and Road co-operation will not only help to build New Zealand's tourism infrastructure, but it will also further strengthen New Zealand's advantage as an ideal tourist destination for Chinese tourists and attract more Chinese tourists."

China plans to hold its own China-New Zealand Year of Tourism event later this year.