Opinion & Analysis

The future of Asian tourism in New Zealand

New Zealand has done remarkably well in combating COVID-19.

However, there are conflicting views about when we should open our borders, and to whom.

I understand the uncertainty and of course, New Zealanders’ health must come first, but one thing is certain: the sooner we can safely welcome international visitors again, the more jobs and businesses we will save across New Zealand.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, tourism was New Zealand’s single largest export sector, earning $17.2 billion a year (just ahead of dairy, and well ahead of meat and wood) or 20.4 percent of New Zealand’s foreign exchange earnings. 

sebastien goldberg nFz07lQG8pc unsplashTourism is New Zealand's largest single export sector. Photo: Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash

Almost 400,000 people worked directly or indirectly in tourism—that’s more than one in every seven jobs.

The trans-Tasman bubble is the obvious starting point. Australia's success in combating the virus is similar to our own and Australia is by far our largest visitor market, attracting more than 1.5 million visitors a year. Recent surveys suggest many Australians are keen to soon head across the ditch.

New Zealand must then be prepared to open its borders as soon as it can to other countries which have the virus under control, and which can demonstrate they can facilitate safe travel. This would require all the systems to be in place to deal with COVID-19 risks, as well as public acceptance that such a reopening is safe and possible.

Before the pandemic, China was New Zealand's second-largest international visitor market (over 400,000 visitors in 2019) and with one of the highest average visitor spends.

Total spend last year was $1.7 billion. The Chinese, of course, like to travel during Chinese New Year, which is the height of summer in New Zealand, while the New Zealand spring (October) is also popular. 

Air new zealandPeak travelling season to New Zealand varies between Asian countries. Chinese travellers often come during Lunar New Year, while the peak travel period for Japanese travellers is between November and March. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As so many Chinese visitors were either already here or planning to visit New Zealand as the borders began to close in February, how our nation reacted in those early days of the pandemic will no doubt affect future travel by this market.

The sentiment reported from Tourism New Zealand’s China representatives at the time was largely positive, but how each business dealt with cancellations was its own individual commercial decision to make. While we saw many instances of generosity and good faith, it wasn’t always possible for business owners to balance their immediate needs with the longer-term view of securing good future relationships.

Many lost enormous amounts of money, or entire businesses, trying to do so. There were no easy answers.

Japan is our second most important Asian visitor market, with 98,000 visitors contributing $277 million to New Zealand's economy last year. 

chuttersnap 41 YdnYxh0 unsplashTIA chief executive Chris Roberts said the tourism industry must accept that a return to anything like the previous level of international visitors could take three to five years. Photo: chuttersnap on Unsplash

Just before the pandemic, despite a slower growth phase emerging from this market, the outlook remained positive. Research shows Japanese travellers are motivated by adventure and refreshment, nature and the outdoors - great news for New Zealand where these types of activities exist in abundance.

The traditional peak period for Japanese visitors is from November to March. Perhaps by summer, things will look very different. For now, we must presume there will be no return of international visitors outside the trans-Tasman bubble this year.

South Korea is another Asian market we’ll be watching with interest as the international travel situation develops. New Zealand’s third largest Asian visitor market, we welcomed 88,000 Korean visitors last year, who spent a combined $213 million across the country.

Other Asian markets like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand all offer opportunities if they have continued success in controlling COVID-19.

As a tourism industry, we must accept that a return to anything like the previous level of international visitors could take three to five years. Hopefully, our Asian visitors will see New Zealand as a safe place to visit; one that responded to the crisis quickly, successfully and with manaakitanga (hospitality) shown to all visitors.

When it is safe for them to do so, I hope they will come for a holiday, to be greeted warmly by Kiwis who will have missed showing off their country.

- Asia Media Centre