Kung Hei Fat Choy! Chinese New Year is just around the corner and is expected to bring in a new wave of Chinese tourists, perhaps more than 30,000 this month, compared with 20,000 in December.
Bookings have been "feverish" for the holiday period marking the year of the snake, with all flights from China to New Zealand now full for that spell.
The continuing rise in tourists from China, up 35 per cent in 2012, and a strong rebound in numbers from Japan recently are helping offset a drop in visitors from recession-hit Britain.
Tourist numbers from Britain - one of New Zealand's worst-performing big markets, according to Statistics New Zealand figures out yesterday - have dived almost 18 per cent in the past year.
While more tourists are coming from China, Japan and Germany, the drop-off from Britain, Malaysia and others meant, overall, about 37,000 fewer tourists arrived last year compared with 2011, a drop of 1.4 per cent. Malaysia was down after the loss of the Air AsiaX route to New Zealand.
The new Chinese year starts next weekend, and is a big holiday period for Chinese, with 3.4 billion journeys expected in China by plane, train or bus over the week.
Bookings to New Zealand are also strong, according to Tourism New Zealand chief executive Kevin Bowler.
"We expect to see very large numbers... it is by far the largest travel period," he said, with arrivals possibly "well over 30,000" this month.
In the past, many Chinese tourists coming to this part of the world spent most of their time in Australia and only tacked on a couple of days in New Zealand. Most of those short-stay tourists are considered low value for New Zealand, with pre-arranged tours.
But a rapidly growing portion, perhaps more than 20 per cent, were now making the long march just to visit New Zealand for a week or more, under the "Premier Kiwi Partnership" programme. Those tourists were expected to spend more and see more of New Zealand.
Because of the boost from the Rugby World Cup in late 2011, tourist numbers last year had been pretty flat overall.
The giant Australian market was down just 0.1 per cent for the year, despite the Rugby World Cup boost in 2011. Australian arrivals were still up 3 per cent on two years ago, so 2012 was not perfect, but not bad, Bowler said.
The Japanese market has been hit hard by both the big quake and tsunami in Japan and people staying away after the Canterbury earthquakes. But, in December, monthly arrivals from Japan were up almost 27 per cent on the same month a year ago.
"We have been waiting a long time to see that rebound," Bowler said, and it had taken a lot of work.
Britain remained New Zealand's biggest challenge as a tourist market.
"There's no doubt that market is experiencing some tough economic conditions, and that's flowing through to travel choices, especially long-haul," Bowler said.
British arrivals fell another 5 per cent in December and were expected to drop further in the year ahead. The British market remained important at almost 190,000 arrivals a year, but it was not something Tourism NZ could turn around.
Even though The Hobbit film had been popular in Britain, it would not be enough to fix that decline, driven by economic issues.
However, the international screenings of The Hobbit had received "fantastic" feedback, Bowler said, especially in the United States.
"Most people didn't see the film till January," he said, and US tourist arrivals in January were expected to be "very good".
The Hobbit should help stir travellers around the world for the coming year, with the film opening in China on February 22.
'Kung Hei Fat Choy!' is an expression akin to 'Happy New Year', spoken by children when requesting an envelope containing money at the Chinese New Year.
- © Fairfax NZ News