New Zealand's "pure" reputation could be under threat as the country's tourism body looks to shore up its global image as a clean and green destination.
Tourism New Zealand has published a research tender aimed at identifying the best way for the industry to "strengthen its alignment" with the 100% Pure New Zealand image.
It suggests improving tourism's "sustainability" credentials with the introduction of an internationally recognised award or qualification to combat "emerging reputational issues".
With international tourism New Zealand's second largest earner, estimated to have contributed $9.8 billion to the economy for the year to March 2013, it was important this was safeguarded, the tender says.
"An industry of this magnitude does not grow by itself and, in a fiercely contested global tourism marketplace . . . Tourism New Zealand is responsible for ensuring New Zealand remains attractive internationally as a visitor destination."
There was anecdotal evidence New Zealand had some emerging reputational issues, highlighted by international media coverage.
These included a high-profile John Key interview on the BBC news show HardTalk, in which he was grilled about New Zealand's clean and green image, and a Guardian article headed "New Zealand was a friend to Middle-earth, but it's no friend to the earth".
With the fastest tourism growth expected to come from Asia, incidents such as the Fonterra whey powder scare had also had a detrimental impact, the tender says.
Tourism NZ chief executive Kevin Bowler said he did not believe there was a big problem at the moment, but it could be a different situation in a decade, with increased competition from countries such as Canada and South Africa.
"There's no doubt all countries are thinking about how they can position their industries, especially their tourism industries, in the best way they can, and having a low carbon footprint is one of those ways."
The current environmental qualification, the Qualmark Enviro Award, was easy to get and did not measure carbon output so more robust options were likely to be explored, he said.
While it might cost tourism operators more in the short term, Bowler believed it would be a small price to pay if it protected the industry as a whole.
Tourism Industry Association chief operating officer Chris McGeown said it was too early to say what impact the tender may have on tourism operators.
The industry was well aware of the challenges it faced internationally and, despite some bad publicity, tourist numbers were still increasing each year.
"We need to keep ourselves ahead of the game as to what will set New Zealand apart as a destination of choice."
Key, who is travelling in the United States, was unavailable for comment.