Outgoing Tourism New Zealand head Stephen England-Hall says the country has to be careful not to lump all freedom campers together.
He has a new job as head of Queenstown's Wayfare group of tourism businesses in February and said within the 12,000 freedom campers, there were different groups.
"We've got to be very careful not to lump all these things together and call them problematic. What is problematic is when people behave badly."
This could including defecating in the wilderness, parking or staying in the wrong place.
"That doesn't necessarily mean that all visitors who choose this kind of travel are all bad."
Some could be a high net worth family who spend two weeks staying in a luxury lodge and then have two nights freedom camping somewhere to experience nature.
Last month, new Tourism Minister Stuart Nash launched a broadside at freedom campers, saying high-value tourists would be targeted instead.
He said freedom camping in vehicles that were not self-contained would be banned as part of efforts to market New Zealand to super-wealthy overseas tourists.
England-Hall said while freedom campers - including 80,000 Kiwis - can be a problem, backpackers will be a valuable part of the tourism economy when they can return.
"Backpackers are not the same as freedom campers who provide labour in primary industry and hospitality and they spend everything they earn — they tend to travel quite broadly. They are likely to be more mobile over the next few years and stay a long time.
"They often get labelled with the same brush as freedom camping — they are quite different," England-Hall said.
Backpackers were also massive advocates for the country when they went home.
England-Hall warns that New Zealand will face a tough fight to attract overseas visitors when travel restrictions and border closures are eased.
New Zealand would have to fight its way to be relevant and it was not a foregone conclusion that tourists would return.
"The halo affect around New Zealand's good record so far around Covid could disappear quickly. Nobody is going to care how well you managed the virus when the world has moved on — there is some work to do to ensure that New Zealand remains top of mind," he said.
"Nobody is going to thank Tourism NZ if we're not ready — we've got to be prepared to drive demand and partner with industry and airlines to get people on planes."
Tourism NZ had a budget of about $111 million a year to promote New Zealand overseas before Covid-19 but has switched to domestic campaigns. It hadn't "gone dark" overseas though.
"You're only as good as your last campaign and right now we've got a real brand halo around New Zealand."
The first tranche of visitors were highly likely to be visiting friends and relatives not coming on holiday, England-Hall said.
The second wave would be business groups or investors.
"The challenge is that historically they don't spend as much per day as our holiday visitors."
While those visitors would help with the health and wellbeing of the population, the economic impact would not be as great.
"When that starts to shift to more leisure travel we want to make sure that mix on the plane skews more to the high value, culturally and environmentally aware.
That would require New Zealand to have sales channels marketing activity establishing relationships on the ground in other countries.
Latest results show domestic tourism in October was up 24 per cent on last October. Kiwis who travelled spent $1.8 billion, up $351m from last year.
England-Hall said while the domestic spending was encouraging, there was still a $12b hole in tourism receipts because of the absence of international visitors.
"The fact that October has held up so well is a good signal but as we head into summer where our international visitors would be dominant that's not going to be the case this year."
He said people wanted to have experiences and build memories with family and friends.
February and March could be softer as this was the peak international tourist season.
"What is encouraging is Kiwis are definitely exploring New Zealand. In the past it may have been taken for granted but it is a really important part of the tourism economy and the reason why so many people choose New Zealand for the once in a lifetime trip. We didn't appreciate it so much."