Are Chinese visitors still flocking to New Zealand?

Chinese tourists enjoying the New Zealand coastline.

Rocky relations between China and the United States has led to a drop in Chinese visitors in the country. New Zealand has also had its share of dicey political moments with China recently, causing concern for those in New Zealand’s accommodation and tourism sector who rely on inbound Chinese travellers.

Chinese travel to the US had experienced unprecedented growth every year since 2003. Now in 2018, travel from China into the USA fell by 5.7 percent. In the last year, political friction and the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese goods and the trade war that followed are at least partially at fault for the decrease.

Similarly, to what happened in New Zealand, the Chinese government issued a travel warning for its citizens, advising tourists to beware of shootings, robberies and high medical costs.

2019 was intended to be the ‘China-New Zealand Year of Tourism’. It was initially supposed to be launched in February but was shelved and rescheduled just a week before starting.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the initiative which officially began on 30 March, 2019.

“Tourism is a crucial strand in our bilateral relationship and is a particularly important driver of economic growth. There was an 8.8 percent increase in Chinese holidaymakers to New Zealand from 2017 to 2018, and China is New Zealand’s second-largest tourism market,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“The Year of Tourism is an opportunity to build on this, showcasing New Zealand’s unique value proposition to Chinese visitors.”

Before the milestone year even officially began, there were murmurs which threatened to slow down Chinese tourism into New Zealand.

The Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China, in New Zealand issued a notice to tourists in December 2018, warning of robberies, poor police investigations, dangerous driving conditions, and highlighting cases where Chinese travellers were denied entry into New Zealand despite valid visas. In January 2019, more notices were issued about safety.

In the latest China Outbound Tourism Report, New Zealand didn’t make the list for Chinese tourist’s top ten destinations. While neighbouring Asian nations like Thailand and Japan filled most of the top ten spots, distant countries such as Italy and the US managed to beat New Zealand. It’s the first time New Zealand hasn’t appeared on the list since the report’s inception in 2015.

The latest Stats NZ data showed 41,063 annual Chinese visitors came into New Zealand in March 2019, a -5.5 percent drop in Chinese visitors from March 2018.

The International Visitor Survey showed a 2 percent drop in Chinese visitor spend in New Zealand in March 2019 opposed to March 2018.

In the year leading up to the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism the data doesn’t lie; there were struggles and setbacks.

But there are signs it could be getting even worse.

Hong Kong Airlines stopped offering flights to New Zealand on 22 May, only two years after it began flying into Auckland. The reason the airline cited for cutting the service was to “better respond to market forces and operational conditions”.

A slow start to the year was also a warning sign, with Chinese visitors down 2,400 from March last year.  February 2019 also had a large decrease in Chinese visitors compared to February 2018 (down 5,500). However, it may be too early to get concerned. The February gap, for instance, can be easily explained away by the timing of the 2019 Chinese New Year and the fewer arrivals during that period.

To truly gauge the success of the 'China-New Zealand Year of Tourism' we will probably have to wait until the year's end. Until then the accommodation industry has good reason to be slightly concerned.