As the reopening of the border approaches, Tourism New Zealand faces a new set of problems as it tries to capture the hearts and minds of potential travellers.
There have been some stuttering starts in the past 18 months, but the government agency's chief executive, Rene de Monchy, is confident it is now time to push play on marketing Aotearoa.
"The great thing for us is now it's much clearer that people are going to be able to come back soon," he says.
But New Zealand is behind its competitors, most notably Australia in this part of the world. That country opened up to vaccinated tourists last month. Under current settings New Zealand could be five months behind.
While the Government here is moving towards an earlier reopening to tourists than the July date currently planned, the existing timetable is another barrier to the recovery of the $17 billion international tourism industry, which once vied with dairy as the country's top foreign exchange earner.
De Monchy is confident Australian tourists will be allowed back into the country with few Covid restrictions by the middle of the year.
But New Zealand faces new challenges in attracting travellers, more especially the big- spending North American, European and Chinese visitors.
For many visitors from the long-haul markets, New Zealand was already a once-in-five-to-10-year bucket list holiday, And now, health concerns, complexity and costs have increased since the pandemic.
Tourism NZ was still detecting a strong desire by tourists to travel to this country, but the big challenge was getting them to take the big step and book.
"Getting tourists to a long-haul or super-long-haul destination like New Zealand — that's the really big trick — they've got to be really emotionally invested," said de Monchy.
Marketing has to cut through like never before to create that desire, and then help visitors deal with the new travel environment.
"The second part of that is travel has become more complicated. It's probably going to be more expensive ... Do I need to do a pre-test or a post-test? What about insurance?"
Ticket prices were heading up, with soaring fuel costs of particular concern to New Zealand, at the end of ultra-long-haul routes for airlines that are struggling to rebuild their balance sheets. They won't be back here with the same number of services that they offered before the pandemic hit, and less competition will drive up prices.
De Monchy said travel agents would be more important than ever and Tourism New Zealand was already working closely with the travel trade.
"Pre-Covid, about three-quarters of arrivals to New Zealand from long-haul markets booked through the travel trade. My expectation is that will be higher coming out of Covid."
De Monchy was appointed boss of Tourism NZ just as the transtasman bubble opened last April - then closed three months later - and there have been other false dawns for travel and tourism.
"It's great to see New Zealanders being able to come back. That gets the system up again and we really look forward to being able to welcome visitors when the time is right, and I think tourism is going to have a really crucial role in supporting New Zealand's recovery out of this crisis."
How to sell a country
Last month Tourism NZ came under fire for a campaign it was running to promote New Zealand in some key markets. Act leader David Seymour questioned the point of trying to sell a country which was closed.
Something "was lost in translation", said de Monchy.
It was a higher-level campaign to encourage "dreaming" about New Zealand rather than calling potential travellers to action.
"We've talked about keeping the brand alive and keeping people dreaming about New Zealand but there certainly hasn't been, from us, any kind of 'book now' messages or 'buy your ticket now'. It's been very much about planning ahead."
He said stopping marketing would end up costing much more in the long run. Starting from scratch after going "dark" could take years.
A campaign has been launched with National Geographic and over the coming weeks the agency, with a budget of about $110 million a year, will start adding more content and advice on how to book a ticket.
"There are not people lining up at the door ready to come in. We are going to have to compete and compete hard for these visitors. We have a good, sophisticated research-driven model that identifies who are the people that are actively considering New Zealand and we target our messages. There's people that no longer have New Zealand on their lists."
Marketing would be focused on making these people fall in love with New Zealand again and work would intensify with trade partners who could answer health-related questions, and queries about the services and accommodation available when they get here.
In 2019 there were 3.8 million visitor arrivals to New Zealand.
There were complaints that the country was over-run with tourists in some places at some times of the year, but de Monchy points out that, pre-Covid, tourism in New Zealand represented 0.3 per cent of global travel in terms of numbers and 0.8 per cent by value.
The country has for years been targeting high-value tourists and the figures showed it was a premium, niche destination.
De Monchy said the focus on high-value tourists would continue but would not ignore backpackers - whose crucial role in filling seasonal jobs has been starkly emphasised during the pandemic, and who tend to travel for longer and far more widely than other visitors, so spend more in total.
During the pandemic Tourism NZ, with a workforce of 148, switched to promoting this country to Kiwis for the first time in decades (work which will continue), deployed some overseas staff to other government agencies and has now decided to close two overseas offices.
It set up an office in Brazil in 2013 and established a presence in Argentina when Air New Zealand started flying non-stop to Buenos Aires, but with little prospect of those flights resuming, has now withdrawn from South America. It has also closed in Indonesia.
"But our intention is, if we think there's good opportunities and good connectivity out of those regions we would run that and promote New Zealand a bit more out of our hubs. So Indonesia, for example, we would promote from our office in Singapore."
What's left to sell?
Tourism businesses unable to switch to catering to the domestic market have been devastated by border closures. Those that did "pivot" or traditionally catered for Kiwis have been hit by Auckland lockdowns and now by the nationwide Omicron wave which means people are doing their own version of "sheltering in place".
Tourism Industry Aotearoa estimates four in 10 jobs in tourism were lost - about 90,000 positions - and it will be hard to find staff to refill those roles when demand comes back. Long-established businesss such as Rainbow Springs and the Youth Hostel Association had closed their doors, among a string of others.
"It's very sad to see some of those organisations that haven't been able to ride through this storm," said de Monchy.
"But having said that, I think what drives the first desire to come to New Zealand is the beauty of our landscapes, our scenery, the friendliness of our people, those things are definitely here."
Some domestic businesses such as holiday parks were doing well despite the absence of overseas tourists and new businesses would spring up.
"This industry attracts an enormous amount of entrepreneurs and I'm sure we will see growth return."
New Zealand's strong health response to Covid to date also helped the country's attractiveness.
"I don't think it'll ever become a core part of our marketing and how we attract people in New Zealand. Having said that, I think having a good health and safety record will reduce the barrier for people making the decision."
One Auckland tourism leader has a wishlist for Tourism NZ. The city, which was the main gateway to tourists pre-pandemic, has been hard-hit by border failures and last year's slow vaccine rollout contributing to months of lockdown.
Gavin Oliver is co-founder of EcoZip Adventures, chairman of the Auckland Tourism Regional Forum and deputy chairman of Waiheke Island Tourism.
"Primarily, we need [Tourism NZ] to continue the advocacy role they fulfil with Government. They're a vital conduit for practical, and pragmatic, advice to Cabinet; we need them to continue to inform Government both about the parlous state of the sector and the deadlines we're facing," he said.
"If we're not soon sending a clear signal, and providing some certainty, to our offshore markets that NZ is, or will be, open and welcoming of tourists, we'll lose another summer."
Good, long-established, family-owned businesses would not last that long.
Oliver said as the rest of the world opened up and New Zealand remained closed, preference for this country would naturally decrease.
"As other countries move to compete for those same tourism dollars, we need TNZ to be agile and able to reintroduce, and reinforce, the New Zealand brand to keep the dream alive."