Tourist businesses may have to shut their doors some days if more staff can't be found in the next five years, says an industry leader.
It is estimated the industry needs another 40,000 workers during the next five years.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa and other tourist bodies today launched a series of initiatives to attract more workers to the sector where there were perceptions that it had a high number of dead end jobs with poor pay.
The body's chief executive Chris Roberts said the need was acute, particularly in tourist hot spots such as Queenstown and the whole industry would suffer if service standards fell.
"It means we'll be managing on inadequate staff levels and the risk then we're not maximising the opportunities, our standards might slip, he said at the industry event, Trenz.
"You're already seeing that now with restaurants are having to close one night a week in Queenstown. They want to give the chef a rest."
The tourist sector already employs an estimated 360,000 staff and like other industries was in a battle for talent.
Roberts said attracting staff wasn't just about pay. About 40 per cent of TIA's members pay a minimum of the living wage - which is higher than the minimum wage.
"Within tourism there are parts of the industry that pay very well but it's not so much a concern about wages. They're wondering if its a year round role, is there progression?"
Another group representing operators, the Tourism Export Council, says sufficient staff numbers were essential.
"For too long tourism has been considered a temporary option until something else comes along. Our industry is not only New Zealand's largest export earner, but it is continuing to grow at a rapid pace and it is essential to our reputation as a visitor destination that we attract and keep new talent," said chief executive Judy Chen.
The industry groups are seeking $3 million in the next three years from the government's soon to be introduced border levy to help pay for measures including:
• Education to improve knowledge and perceptions of tourism and tourism careers
• Make it easier for young people to experience tourism careers through activities like industry open days and placement programmes
• Ensure those entering tourism employment have a positive experience so they stay in the industry. This would include activities such as employer support and mentoring programmes.
Roberts said there was continued frustration at tourism subjects taught at school not counting towards university entrance. Teachers and parents discouraged students from learning about what is New Zealand's number one export earner.
Research released by TIA showed in some areas 75 per cent of tourist businesses were reliant on foreign staff on work visas.
The research by Angus and Associates found "significant barriers" to attracting and retaining locals included the lack of accommodation in tourism centres, the need to move from cities to small regional centres, seasonality of employment and concerns about pay.