A record number of Chinese tourists are visiting New Zealand, and West Coast tourism operators are getting ready for more.
Figures released by Statistics New Zealand yesterday show 22,000 Chinese holidaymakers visited in May, compared to 20,200 Australians - just the second time Chinese tourists have outnumbered Australians after it previously happened in February last year.
While Australia remains New Zealand's largest tourist market, the growing Chinese tourist market means West Coast operators are looking at how they can attract visitors.
Tourism West Coast chief executive Jim Little said spending by Chinese tourists on the West Coast had gone from $7m to $33m in just four years.
"We've done a lot of work on training a lot of our operators on 'Are You China Ready' to the point where a number of retail businesses that deal with tourists and a lot of operators, particularly around the glaciers, are employing Mandarin-speaking people.''
Mr Little said with mining, coal and dairying slumping in the region, businesses and operators were embracing the opportunity.
"So tourism has suddenly surfaced on the horizon as the shining light at the present time and of course it's going through magnificent growth. So a lot of Coasters who may have treated tourism as a bit of a Cinderella industry are starting to take it seriously.''
Fox Glacier Guiding chief executive Rob Jewel said he had been actively targeting the Chinese market for the past 10 years.
He employed two Mandarin-speaking guides, while three front-line staff had been trained how to interact with Chinese tourists.
"We've done five sales missions over to China to meet directly with the outbound market there, the suppliers, so that they're aware not only of New Zealand as a destination but also the West Coast and where we're located, Fox Glacier, so they know how to get here and what is on offer.''
Mr Jewel said his advice to other operators looking at trying to attract a share of the Chinese tourist market was to remember the small things.
"They like different foods, they have different needs in terms of accommodation. Get familiar with it and introduce small things to show that you want that market, that you're prepared to work with it and you'll see the results come."
Hokitika's Mountain Jade general manager Jennifer Keogan said the Chinese tourist boom was having a significant impact on the West Coast and was extending the tourist season.
Ms Keogan said previously the tourist season did not start until mid to late-October and was over by mid to late-April, but in the past year it started in September and lasted through to the end of May.
She said once it was clear how significant the market would be for the West Coast, she hired Mandarin and Cantonese speaking staff.
"They've been hugely beneficial. Not only to liase with customers but assist and train our other staff in basic greetings and also having an understanding of the cultural aspect of the Chinese traveller.''
Ms Keogan said she hoped more West Coast operators would start to think about how they could cater to the Chinese tourist.
"That's what we're here for, to cater to the tourists. They're the ones that bring income into the town which supports our community. We employ a lot of people in turn that spend money in our community, so the more we have coming through, the more we can employ and the better off our economy will be over here.''
Next week a joint delegation, Kia Ora South, which has been organised by Christchurch International Airport, will travel to China to market the South Island to operators, with an eye on getting its share of the boom.