A shipment of gold kiwifruit sent to Japan by Zespri this week opened the kiwifruit export season.

This first shipment of 560 pallets, or 140,000 trays, will arrive in Kobe, Japan, on April 6 after being shipped from Gisborne almost two weeks ahead of last year's season start.

It is sharing the vessel with a consignment of late season squash.

"We're delighted with the quality of this early-season harvest - the crop is clean with good sized fruit and excellent taste characteristics," said the company's chief executive, Lain Jager.

"Over the next two years we predict total volumes to grow by 10 million trays."

Improved foreign exchange rates, reduced oil prices and a strong crop promised a successful season this year.

Marketing staff planned to capitalise on the early start to the season with aggressive campaigns.

The promotions will focus on the health benefits of NZ kiwifruit, supported by consumer competitions and nutritional campaigns in schools.

The first shipments to China are scheduled to arrive midway through next month, and Europe will get its first fruit at the end of the month. .

The refrigerated cargo carrier Sunbelt Spirit will take the largest single shipment of Zespri kiwifruit to Europe at the beginning of May.

The ship will hold 7300 pallets - about 69.5 million kiwifruit.

About 25,000 people, mostly seasonal workers, will harvest, pack and ship millions of kiwifruit over the season.

"The kiwifruit industry is a key economic driver in the Bay of Plenty and generates ... about $2 billion annually, contributing 19 per cent to the region's gross domestic product," said Peter Ombler, president of NZ Kiwifruit Growers.

"We are confident that a combination of an early start to the season, the high quality of the fruit and new export markets will bode well for a strong season for Bay growers."

- NZPA