The number of visitors here on holiday has slid by 1 per cent in the past year, with what had been the country's most promising market, China, sliding 9 per cent.
Figures showing the slump in the number of Chinese holiday makers comes two days after the closing ceremony for the China-NZ Year of Tourism, which was aimed at bolstering links between the two countries.
While the total Chinese visitor arrival figure is down 8.8 per cent to 413,000, numbers here on holiday have fallen even further, down 11 per cent to 308,000 in a downturn attributed to economic weakness and more competition from other countries.
Total visitor arrivals are just under four million and up 2.5 per cent for the year, but holiday arrivals are down by more than 18,000 to 1.99 million.
Tourism New Zealand is looking into concerns about sustainability and climate concerns but says it doesn't appear to be seeing arrivals figures materially impacted yet.
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The arrivals slowdown is put down to global economic conditions and uncertainty from events like Brexit and the trade war between China and the United States.
The important Australian market is still growing, as is the United States, but both are increasing at lower rates in the sector crucial to the economy.
Tourism outstripped dairy as New Zealand's single biggest foreign exchange earner, last year topping $16.2 billion, and the industry is a major employer.
About 365,000 people were directly or indirectly employed in the sector - about 13 per cent of the workforce.
The sector experienced 30 per cent growth in the five years to 2018, reaching more than 3.8 million visitors as air links expanded and the global appetite for travel grew rapidly.
Tourism New Zealand promotes this country overseas and its director of commercial, René de Monchy, said the figures gave a sense of how intense competition was.
''We are in competition with so many destinations that do have some significant tourism budgets.''
Funding for Tourism NZ's activities has been effectively frozen for the past two years and it is now prioritising its activities in its core markets of Australia, China and the United States.
Those countries account for more than half of New Zealand's tourists.
De Monchy said Chinese holiday makers were feeling fallout from trade tension, ebbing economic confidence and were being tempted by short-haul destinations or non-traditional ones.
''New Zealand is a long-haul destination, a premium destination and people are delaying those trips. Some of those eastern European markets are competing aggressively and we're seeing a shift to that.''
Tourism NZ was looking for opinion leaders or influencers to promote New Zealand in China.
''It is still a key way in appealing to Chinese visitors but as with all of these things, as this market becomes more competitive and different destinations are in there it also becomes more competitive to find those opinion leaders,'' said de Monchy.
There were signs that numbers could recover over Chinese New Year in summer, the traditional peak for visitors from China to come here.
He said the Year of Tourism had coincided with an unfortunate mix of macro factors but the programme of events was more than just attracting more visitors.
The government has previously said the Year of Tourism's main focus here has been on a long term plan to encourage value over volume and tailoring tourism experiences to Chinese visitors and also an opportunity to support industry to encourage Chinese visitors to stay for longer and explore the regions.
The ''flight shame'' movement which was gaining ground in parts of Europe - and takes aim at long-haul air travel - was not showing up reasons not to come here.
"I think there's alot of sentiment and alot of conversation about it. There's a lot of talk about it but we're not seeing anything in peoples' behaviour.''
Tourism NZ was now leading research into the movement and information will be used to form the basis of a co-ordinated response by the tourism industry and the government.
''This project will help us understand what proportion of people are feeling the sentiment strongly enough to change their behaviour, understand more about how they think about those changes and what that looks like today versus five or 50 years into the future.''
The North American market was set for healthy growth with growing air links including Air Canada entering the Vancouver-Auckland route next month and new American Airlines and Air New Zealand flights starting later next year.
Tourism NZ recently spent $100,000 hosting late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert and his crew while they were in New Zealand last month.
It expects a "significant return on investment" of $5 million in estimated advertising value from Colbert's trip when he spruiks the country later this month and the agency is also expecting a big payoff from another US television personality.
Samantha Brown hosts Places to Love on the PBS network and Tourism NZ has spent $188,000 on programmes featuring this country, with an estimated payback of $5.3m.
Senior ASB economist Mike Jones said it was a ''reasonably strong'' winter for tourism, with southern snowfalls perhaps helping lure more Australians.
Stats NZ figures show the total number of short-term Australian visitors was 131,400 in September, up 6.4 per cent from the same month a year earlier, taking the annual tally to 1.53 million, up 3.8 per cent.
''Australian tourists continue to make up not only the largest share of all arrivals, but have also been responsible for around 60 per cent of the growth in arrival numbers over the past year. This may reflect the greater number of transtasman flights on offer, as well as targeted campaigns by various tourism agencies. It also comes despite a particularly unfriendly exchange rate,'' Jones said.