Luxury limousine van hire boss Simon Cheung ordered seven new Mercedes coaches in anticipation of wealthy Chinese tourists and a spike in visitors from the mainland this China-New Zealand Year of Tourism 2019.
But not only are these targeted Chinese visitors not coming, visitor numbers from China are falling - forcing Cheung to cancel his Mercedes fleet order and forfeiting a $10,000 deposit.
Cheung, who is also chair of the NZ China Travel and Tourism Association (NZCTTA), said many local operators who had banked on a growth in Chinese visitor arrivals have been left "disappointed and struggling".
China visitor numbers are down 21 per cent in April compared to the same month last year, according to Stats NZ figures released today.
Visitor arrivals from China in April dropped to 36,600, despite arrivals from other countries increasing by 23,500 in the same time last year, taking total arrivals to 307,400.
Chinese visitor arrivals were also down 20,400 for the year ending April 2019.
Stats NZ population indicators manager Tehseen Islam said visitor numbers from China were lower when compared even to 2017.
Professor of Tourism at Auckland University of Technology and director of the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute Simon Milne said the decline has been a "disappointing outcome" during a year that was meant to boost visitor numbers.
"I think it's natural, given the amount of attention this 'year of tourism' has garnered, for people in the sector to expect a growth in high-value tourism from China and to see some more general growth in the market," Milne said.
He said Chinese were giving New Zealand the wide berth due to several factors, including a slowdown in the Chinese economy and ongoing uncertainty around the US trade war.
"Destination popularity can grow and wane ... in other words, we were 'flavour of the month' but tastes can change," Milne said.
"We are competing in a global tourism marketplace and visitors may decide that they would like to focus attention elsewhere."
Milne noted that while most visitors to NZ from China had a good experience, surveys had found that overall they tend to be less satisfied than tourists from other markets, including the United States and Europe.
"This is likely to have some impact on word-of-mouth or repeat travel."
He did not think factors such as the Christchurch terror attacks or political pressures due to the Huawei saga would have had any impact.
Cheung said many association members had told him they were struggling to stay afloat.
"Cost is getting higher and profit margins are now smaller, so the only way many were hoping to survive was by getting bigger numbers," he said.
"But unfortunately, for those who had banked their hopes on Chinese visitors coming in this year of tourism, they are left disappointed and struggling."
NZCTTA represents more than 200 local Chinese tourism operators and providers.
Cheung said it had been a challenge to market New Zealand as a "premium destination" to the Chinese.
"We don't have truly top-end hotels with swimming pools like Singapore's Marina Bay Sands, nor can NZ offer much luxury shopping that many of these tourists demand," he said.
"We do have nice golf resorts, but the Chinese can also get these closer to home, like in Thailand, for a fraction of the cost."
Richard Davies, tourism policy manager at Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, says the tourism year was "never just about increasing visitor numbers".
"It's about using tourism as a way of strengthening economic and people-to-people ties, and focusing on high-value visitors," he said.
"One of the important roles is to encourage people to come outside of the peak summer season and explore the regions to see more of New Zealand."
Davies said the slowdown had come on the back of record growths from China, and Chinese arrivals here remained strong.
Annual arrivals growth from China averaged 15 per cent in the four years through 2018.
New Zealand currently gets about 450,000 of the 120 million outbound visitors from China, which remains our second biggest visitor market behind Australia in terms of numbers and spend.