New Zealand's picturesque southern tourist towns are hurting as visitors deterred by earthquake-damaged Christchurch stay away in droves.

The famous ski resort, Queenstown, and iconic whale-watching town Kaikoura have both reported a significant slump in tourist numbers since the February 22 quake destroyed the centre of Christchurch and left 182 dead.

Other well-known hubs like Wanaka, Mt Cook and Te Anau are also feeling the pinch of the turndown, described by experts the "toughest" tourism challenge the ever-popular South Island has ever faced.

About 90 per cent of all visitors to New Zealand's south fly in via Christchurch, but visitor arrivals at the city's fully-functioning airport are down 30 per cent.


In the words of the airport's chief executive, Jim Boult: "We are currently in the midst of the biggest crisis that South Island tourism has ever faced."

He echoed the head of Tourism New Zealand, Kevin Bowler, who told AAP it had been an "unbelievably challenging few months".

The Christchurch region's head of tourism, Tim Hunter, confirmed many tourism operations have started shedding staff, limiting their operations and some have shut down altogether.

"What we are seeing is that this earthquake has damaged South Island tourism to the tune of as much as 30 per cent at the moment," Mr Hunter said.

He warned that many more companies will close in coming months if numbers don't pick up.

In coastal Kaikoura, award-winning tourism operator Whale Watch has cut staff numbers and "streamlined" two services to survive as the number of international visitors plummet.

At Mt Cook, business has fallen by 50 per cent.

Queenstown is usually awash with Japanese tourists at this time of year but the double whammy that was the Christchurch quake, in which many Japanese students died, and the devastating quake and subsequent tsunami that flattened much of Japan's northeast coast last month, has kept this market away.


Destination Queenstown chief executive Tony Everitt said while there were no official figures available, it appeared Australian visitor numbers had "not been significantly impacted".

And with a ski season poised to start, he's hopeful Aussie arrival numbers will continue their steady climb.

"Australia is our biggest growth market," Mr Everitt told AAP.

"More and more Australians are choosing to ski in Queenstown ... because we have great snow."

He was confident widespread marketing campaigns and a boost in direct flights from Australia to Queenstown from 22 to 32 a week would keep numbers up.

Asked if the quake might still act as a deterrent, Mr Everitt said "I really hope not".

"Some months will have passed by then. People move on and look to the future."