Sixteen Australian schoolboys from an elite Catholic college have been suspended on their return home after being caught shoplifting $6000 worth of goods in Queenstown.

The boys, aged 14 to 17, from Melbourne's Xavier College, were part of a group of 30 students and four teachers on the last day of a skiing trip to New Zealand when they were caught stealing from seven stores in the resort's central business district on Saturday.

Xavier principal Chris Hayes suspended the boys allegedly involved immediately they arrived at Melbourne airport last night, and said he was "gutted" by their actions. The school had launched its own investigation into the incident.

Police said the shoplifting spree involved seven stores between 2pm and 6pm.

R&R Sport sales assistant Kate Long told the Otago Daily Times shop staff became suspicious and questioned the group after they took ski garments into the changing rooms.

Some of the boys ran off when challenged, but were quickly found waiting for a bus with teachers.

A search of the bags by teachers and Ms Long uncovered a variety of stolen garments and souvenirs - many damaged where security tags had been ripped off.

Ms Long said the teachers were helpful, paying for the damaged garments immediately and making the boys, some of whom were in tears, call their parents.

Queenstown police Sergeant Steve Watt said today the boys were fortunate to be allowed to leave without being charged.

"There are no convictions but their passports have been flagged," Mr Watt said.

"If the boys get into trouble again in New Zealand then authorities here will know about this disgrace."

Xavier College is a boys' Jesuit school and one of Melbourne's most elite Catholic colleges with fees of about $18,000 a year.

Dr Hayes said after he was told of the shoplifting on Saturday night he made a point of being at the airport when the group arrived back in Melbourne.

"We very, very much regret their behaviour, we are quite gutted by what they've done," Dr Hayes told reporters.

"When I was informed of the situation on Saturday evening I chose to make sure that I was at the airport to meet the 16 students and their parents to inform them of how disgraceful this behaviour was, and therefore to inform them that they would be suspended until further notice."

Dr Hayes said the boys narrowly avoided more serious legal consequences because of their quick-thinking teachers, who interviewed all 30 students on the trip and quickly rooted out the offenders.

They were made to return the goods and apologise to the shop owners, while compensation was paid for damaged goods.

Each of the boys was also made to call their parents and confess, during which some broke down in tears. "I thought [the teachers] handled a very distressing situation extremely well, to make sure that for the wrongs that were done that apologies were made as quickly as possible, as well as the return and compensation for any damage that had been done to those goods," Dr Hayes said.

The school has attracted negative publicity in the past, including the entire Year 12 group being suspended in 2008 when end-of-year antics led to one student being taken to hospital amid public complaints of students' drunken, violent behaviour.

- NZPA