Auckland International Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood said New Zealand still has plenty of capacity to grow tourism from its record levels achieved last year.

Visitor arrivals to New Zealand rose 10 per cent to 3.13 million last year, and tourism has become the country’s number one export earner, overtaking dairy. The sector has a goal of hitting $41 billion in total revenue by 2025, up from $29.8 billion in 2015.

Littlewood said while the goal is “quite a significant step up”, it is achievable providing the industry works cohesively on growing the infrastructure to support that sort of rise in both volume and quality of international visitor who will stay longer and spend more.

Key opportunities identified are high value Chinese, international students, business events, cruise visits, emerging markets, and promoting Christchurch as a gateway and destination.

Auckland Airport spends around $10 million to $15 million annually supporting tourism marketing for the country.

Littlewood said the industry was too slow to respond to fast growth out of China and initially spent money in the wrong areas. In order to reach its target, New Zealand has to spread more visitors throughout the year rather than just in the peak summer months, he said.

“Traditionally Auckland has been described as being at the bottom of the world but the world is round and Auckland is actually in the middle of a direct line between Tokyo and Buenos Aires.”

New Zealand still has capacity to grow, though it will require ongoing and close coordination between government and industry, he said. New Zealand is ranked number 67 in the world by visitation per capita and 107th by visitation per square kilometre.

“There are plenty of opportunities for this country but we will have to be receptive.

“Ireland, which is also a small country with 4.5 million people, has 8.6 million visitors a year and I don’t think the people of Ireland feel those visitors are taking over the country.”

Cheap fuel prices, more efficient modern aircraft, and a lower Kiwi dollar are making long-haul flights to New Zealand more attractive.

Littlewood said providing detailed information on visitor forecasts to hotel developers would give them “a real handle before they put their money at risk.”

Improved visitor numbers have already led to a 20 per cent increase or around 2000 new hotel rooms in Auckland.