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Chris Roberts: As tourist numbers from China explode, Kiwis speaking Mandarin or Cantonese has never been more important

Chinese tourists on the Tasman Glacier.

OPINION: This Week is Chinese Language Week.  Let's use this opportunity to give Mandarin a go, starting with a basic greeting.  Given the importance of Chinese to our tourism market, the opportunity for more Kiwis to start communicating and understanding China in a cultural context has never been more important.

Visitor arrival growth out of China continues to break records, offering New Zealand tremendous opportunities to capitalise on what is now our second largest international visitor market – and which, by value is predicted to be No 1 as soon as next year.

The arrival numbers highlight how explosive this growth has been. Thirty years ago, New Zealand welcomed just over 1000 Chinese visitors a year. By 2013 this figure had climbed to 222,000, taking China past the United Kingdom and United States. Three years later, it has almost doubled and now exceeds 400,000 a year, accounting for 12 per cent of our total annual visitor arrivals.

That spectacular increase in visitors is being driven by two key factors. First, China's burgeoning middle-class has both the money and the desire to travel internationally. According to China's Xinhua news agency, more than 120 million Chinese travelled abroad last year, up 12 percent year on year.

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Second, expanded air links between our two nations have vastly improved access to New Zealand, with new direct, daily, year-round flights, with more flights to be added.

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The rate of growth shows little sign of abating. This year the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) forecast Chinese visitor arrivals will reach nearly one million by 2022. That may seem ambitious, but currently New Zealand receives just 0.3 per cent of Chinese international travellers, so there is a lot of potential for growth.

China is also a very valuable visitor market for New Zealand, worth an estimated $1.8 billion in the year ending June 2016, up 33 per cent on the previous year. By the end of 2017, MBIE forecasts that total spend from the China market will overtake Australia, currently our most valuable visitor market, to reach almost $2.7 billion.

Importantly, we are not only seeing more Chinese visitors, but more higher-value visitors. As Chinese become more confident about organising their own trips and seek new and interesting experiences, there is a shift away from lower value tour groups towards Free Independent Travellers (FIT). 

The transition has been remarkably rapid. As recently as 2012 about 70 per cent of Chinese holidaymakers came here on group tours, usually staying only 3 or 4 days. This has now fallen to less than 50 per cent and the strongest growth has been in independent travellers who go to more regions and stay for longer.

New Zealand attracts visitors from every Chinese province, but the majority of arrivals originate from the more sophisticated Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong provinces.

Unsurprisingly, given the rapid growth, for more than 90 per cent of Chinese travellers, it's their first visit to New Zealand. However, some fall in love with our country so much that they return again, often within 12 months. Most stay in hotels but they are also using holiday parks and other forms of accommodation. Favourite activities while they are here include farm tours, geothermal attractions, gardens, cultural attractions, walking and hiking.

The speed and scale of the visitor growth out of China has seen new insight and resources developed to ensure New Zealand's tourism industry meets the expectations of Chinese visitors.

Many of the younger independent Chinese travellers have good English. But the tourism industry still has a very strong need for staff with language skills. Fluent Mandarin or Cantonese speakers have many opportunities to be involved in our burgeoning tourism industry. 

Chris Roberts is chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa.

The Dominion Post

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