More than 133,000 foreign fans came to New Zealand to see the Rugby World Cup, easily beating earlier predictions of up to 100,000 and helping to balance out a tough year for some tourist operators.
Statistics NZ figures show 53,200 arrived in October alone, up 17 per cent on the same month last year. But excluding rugby fans, the tourist numbers would have been lacklustre, economists said.
Arrivals from Europe and the United States were expected to remain weak into next year, given the uncertain global outlook.
Tourism Industry Association chief executive Tim Cossar, who is due to step down early in the new year, said the overall rugby fan arrival figures were a fantastic achievement and October figures were "quite positive".
"The Rugby World Cup certainly exceeded a lot of expectations, that's for sure," he said. Some gains from markets such as Australia and Britain were "incredibly encouraging", though they were only for a short period.
In the 12 months till October, total arrivals were up 2.6 per cent giving an indication of the trend, after the hit from the Canterbury quake and the more recent lift from the Rugby World Cup.
"The base market is still fairly static," Cossar said.
"The Rugby World Cup has given us a bit of a top-up" and should help promote New Zealand's tourism brand longer term, though it was impossible to say how much.
However, foreign rugby fans did not spread right around the country, with tourism businesses typically doing better in the northern regions, with Christchurch missing out on any games, because of quake damage in the city.
"There have been some winners, people who have done incredibly well," Cossar said.
But some regional business never saw the benefit and in some cases had seen business decline.
For the peak summer season coming up, operators were still wary. "There is a very cautious optimism out there," Cossar said.
Some Asian markets such as Malaysia and China had started to lift again after slowing down during the Rugby Cup.
New flights started from Singapore in March this year, from Guangzhou, China, in April and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia also in April. Arrivals from China have increased every month since the middle of last year, over the previous year's corresponding month.
Asian tourist numbers were expected to keep rising in the coming year, but Australian numbers might be steady, with tourists not spending as much.
Other markets such as Europe might show only small signs of recovery.
"The outlook for those markets is reasonably tough," Cossar said. There was also a drop in visitors from Japan and Korea.
With economic uncertainty in the world, the amount tourists spent in New Zealand had fallen.
"They don't have the same amount to spend they used to," Cossar said, so how long people stayed and how much they spent was just as big a challenge as getting people to come here.
About 80,000 tourists came to New Zealand for the tournament between July and August. ASB Bank economists said the total of 133,200 was well above earlier forecasts. But despite the boost, total visitor arrivals were up just 31,000 or so on a year ago.
More than a third of the total overseas tourists who came for the cup were from Australia; many were originally from New Zealand.
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