The Auckland Lantern Festival - the country's largest cultural event - has been cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) general manager destination Steve Armitage said the decision to call off the event for the first time in its 21-year history was made following a meeting with Chinese community leaders this morning.

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"Since the situation in mainland China became clear around the coronavirus, we have been monitoring the situation primarily from a health and safety perspective as to the viability of carrying on with the Lantern Festival as planned," Armitage said.

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"It became clear over the course of the weekend that there was a bit of a groundswell of opinion building up within the local Chinese community about the timing of the event."

Auckland's Lantern Festival 2020 was scheduled to start on Thursday February 13. Photo / File
Auckland's Lantern Festival 2020 was scheduled to start on Thursday February 13. Photo / File

About a dozen local Chinese community leaders attended the meeting and supported the view that the festival should be cancelled.

"The collective view was that if the Chinese nationals are not considering attending because of the issues relating to the situation back in China, that's the heart of the event, and if the origins of the event can't be respected ... then we felt the only decision we could take was to cancel this year's event," Armitage said.

"We fully respect the wishes of the Chinese community who have shared their culture and tradition with Aucklanders through the Lantern Festival for 21 years.

"The Lantern Festival as it is delivered and as Aucklanders have become accustomed to will return next year bigger and better."

Since 2000, the Auckland Lantern Festival has lit up the city annually - first at Albert Park and now at the Auckland Domain.

With more than 200,000 visitors each year, the festival is today the biggest celebration of Chinese culture in New Zealand.

The four-day festival was due to open next Thursday February 13 to bring the Year of the Rat Chinese New Year celebrations to a close.

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Ateed general manager destination Steve Armitage confirmed that Auckland's Lantern Festival 2020 has been cancelled. Photo / Lincoln Tan
Ateed general manager destination Steve Armitage confirmed that Auckland's Lantern Festival 2020 has been cancelled. Photo / Lincoln Tan

University of Auckland Professor of Asian Studies Manying Ip, an adviser to the Asia New Zealand Foundation which started the festival, said the cancellation would have a "negative impact".

Ip said there has not been a single confirmed case of coronavirus in New Zealand, and questioned the need to cancel public events.

"If we cancel all festivities it would really put a damper on the community and also on New Zealand quite unnecessarily," Ip said.

"To me, it is an overreaction if we cancelled the lantern festival. First of all it is in an open space, it is in a park, it is not having people in an enclosed area for a long period of time."

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said: "The Lantern Festival is a popular and much-anticipated fixture on Auckland's events calendar."

"It's sad that the festival won't be going ahead this year, but it's important to respect the wishes of Auckland's Chinese community, many of whom don't feel it is appropriate to celebrate the festival given the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in China and its toll on life there."

More than 17,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus that originated in China and spread to other countries. More than 400 people have died in China and two in the Philippines.

There has yet to be any cases in New Zealand, but many are taking precautions by wearing medical masks and staying away from crowded places.

Several other Lunar New Year events, including the Whau Chinese New Year Festival and the Northcote Chinese and Korean New Year were also cancelled last weekend.