The operator of an agency bringing rich American tourists to New Zealand says the lack of Kiwis working in tourism here could harm the industry.

Ian Swain has customised high-end holidays to New Zealand for 30 years from his base in Philadelphia but says the number of foreign workers here was conspicuous.

"The Americans want to come down and talk to the Kiwis and befriend them. A lot of properties and more so the tour experiences are employing a lot of people who relate to other markets rather than the Kiwi or American market," he said at an Auckland Airport travel summit before the start of Trenz tourism event in Rotorua.

"They're coming down and saying they didn't meet a New Zealander. It's a shame."


Swain's clients could spend $20,000 per person for 12-13 days in New Zealand where labour shortages, particularly outside the main centres, meant more overseas workers were employed in the tourist industry.

"There are too many people who are not New Zealanders in the tourism industry. I think that's a detrimental thing for the business down here.''

He had recently been in Iceland where it was the opposite.

"Everywhere I went I interacted with people from Iceland - that's something to think about.''

His business had enjoyed "tremendous growth'' here in the past few years. New air services this year- American Airlines, United flying to Auckland - and Air New Zealand now flying into Houston, makes it easier for Americans to get here, he said.

"And with the (kiwi) dollar in the sixty cents makes it easier as well."

Latest figures show arrivals from the United States up nearly 12 per cent to 253,792 for the year to the end of March. The US is New Zealand's third largest market behind Australia and China.

Swain said New Zealand's popularity reflected by a decision by American Express to hold an event in New Zealand for its senior managers ahead of 28 other countries.


"They chose that because they saw the card member spend down here - they realised they should come and see that for themselves.''

Tourism Industry Association chief executive Chris Roberts said the lack of Kiwis in the industry was of concern.

"It certainly is an issue and it extends beyond the premium space."

Since an industry focus on skills and labour force issues became a priority a year ago some progress had been made.

"There are still definitely workforce issues and we are still reliant as an industry on workers from overseas. There's almost a systemic problem that working in tourism and hospitality is not seen as a career option for young New Zealanders," said Roberts.

However, tourism was a big employer and there were growing opportunities for Kiwis, he said. There was also scope to become self-employed because barriers to entry into a small tourism business were low.