The fast-flowing tide of people leaving the country, especially for Australia, is turning around.
Fewer people are leaving for Australia and more Kiwis are coming back, while more migrants are coming from India, China and Britain, according to latest official figures.
In the year to the end of February almost 1200 more people arrived than left the country, long-term.
Infometrics economists expected that trend to continue, with a net migration gain hitting more than 5000 by the end of this year.
ASB Bank economists say the net gain of 550 people in February alone, seasonally adjusted, would put a further strain on what was already a housing shortage in some markets.
"As long as inflows remain modest the impact will be limited," ASB said.
The swing back to positive net migration has coincided with a lift in retail spending.
As the Canterbury rebuild gained more steam and the New Zealand job market improved compared with Australia's, even fewer people are expected to cross the Tasman, economists said.
Westpac said the Australian job market was becoming steadily less attractive than New Zealand's, and inflows to New Zealand were expected to become stronger in the next few years as labour shortages became more acute.
Infometrics said the unemployment rate in Australia was still lower than New Zealand's, so the turnaround was surprising.
"This shift suggests to us that labour market conditions in New Zealand may be improving more quickly than the labour market data has suggested," Infometrics said.
In the February 2013 year, New Zealand had a net gain of 1200 migrants, up from zero in the January 2013 year. That followed annual net losses of migrants in the period from late 2011 to the end of 2012.
The flood of people shifting to Australia for work and better prospects since the Canterbury quake is slowing and in February was down about 18 per cent on levels a year ago.
The seasonally adjusted net loss to Australia was 2400 in February, Statistics NZ said, the smallest net loss since January 2011.
The net loss of migrants to Australia in the February year was 36,700, down from the record of 40,000 in the August 2012 year.
The February 2013 annual figure resulted from 52,100 people leaving for Australia, offset by 15,400 arrivals, mainly as the result of more Kiwis coming home.
In both directions, most migrants were New Zealand citizens.
In February, 600 more people arrived in New Zealand long-term than those leaving the country for good, to all points round the world.
That was a turnaround from the large net outflow which had been running since the Christchurch quake two years ago.
The trend to "modest" net inflows started at the end of 2012, and the gain in February was slightly stronger than in January.
Overall arrivals lifted about 1 per cent in February (from January), while departures were down more than 1 per cent.
Auckland, Canterbury and Otago are the only regions to have more migrants arriving than people leaving. Auckland had a net gain of 3900 in the year, Canterbury, 1200 and Otago 100.
In the past year, Christchurch has seen a net gain of 400 technicians and trade workers.
- © Fairfax NZ News