Charter just 'first step'
A special China Southern Airlines charter flight into Christchurch yesterday came with Chinese representatives talking up the possibility of a permanent China-South Island service.
New Zealand tourism industry and Christchurch Airport bosses also forecast the first commercial Dreamliner flight into the quake-hit city could lead to more charters or a regular schedule of direct flights from Guangzhou.
The People's Republic of China consul general to Christchurch Tan Xiutian and China Southern New Zealand general manager Mike Ma both intimated the importance of the Boeing 787 charter flight and that there were "hopes" for fixed services.
But no promises have been made, and Christchurch Airport is not putting a timeframe on when it might get a firm commitment.
Madam Tan joined nearly 230 Chinese visitors on the direct flight from Guangzhou, with many travelling to celebrate Chinese New Year in the South Island.
She noted China Southern, the largest passenger airline in China, had brought increasing numbers of passengers into Auckland since 2011.
The airline, with 570 aircraft, carried around 91.8 million passengers in 2013.
"I believe (the growth) is part of the vision, that China has become New Zealand's largest trading partner and second-biggest market of overseas tourists," she said.
Many people had waited for this charter plane for too long, she said.
"If charters fly it's a huge step forward for our common goal of a regular direct flight from Guangzhou to Christchurch . . . I wish the regular direct flight to Christchurch could become reality in the year 2014."
Ma, in a videotaped speech, said he hoped flights could be extended.
"We hope this is the start of more charter services or even regular services to Christchurch," he said in recorded comments.
New Zealand consul general to Guangzhou Rebecca Needham said the charter was "an exciting first step I think towards more regular direct links between Christchurch and one of New Zealand's most important international partners, China".
Guangdong province had more than 100 million people and was "one of China's two major economic powerhouses, the other being Shanghai and its hinterlands", she said.
Christchurch Airport's new chief executive Malcolm Johns said growth in Chinese visitors numbers to the South Island meant the airport was on a journey to achieving more charters or a permanent services.
"It's a really important step today because China Southern have showed the confidence to schedule aircraft to this part of the world, and we've filled it."
"International visitor arrivals for Christchurch Airport from China (were) up 20 per cent in the last year alone. In that same 12 months (for 2013) tourism spending in the South Island by Chinese visitors was up 72 per cent."
In January 2874 Chinese nationals arrived through the airport on international flights, the highest January numbers seen by the airport.
New statistics showed Christchurch Airport clocked up a total 530,614 domestic and international passenger movements in December, a best for a December month since 2009, Johns added.
Tourism Industry Association chief executive Martin Snedden said air connectivity into Christchurch was critical in the post-quake period, with the city still having fewer flights than prior to the February 2011 quake, and having taken "a hell of a hit" in inbound visitors.
The charter around the Chinese New Year period was "a really good first step" in leading to a potential service, Snedden said.
"I think what we have learned is that business relationships with Chinese take a while to develop."