15 Feb 2019

Chinese tourism numbers 'could halve' if relations go sour

6:58 pm on 15 February 2019

New Zealand's tourism numbers from China are up, but a New Zealand businessman in China believes they could half if the two-countries' relationship doesn't improve.

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International Arrivals Photo: =supplied

The country's state-run newspaper is reporting that some Chinese travellers are striking New Zealand off their destination list - despite 2019 being the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism.

In past months China's Auckland consulate has also issued notices warning travellers of problems in New Zealand such as robberies, a lack of police help and people with valid visas being refused entry.

New Zealand businessman David Mahon, who's lived and worked in Beijing for the last 34 years, is convinced the relationship with China is turning sour.

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New Zealand businessman David Mahon says the relationship with China is turning sour. Photo: Supplied

"We are no longer trusted," he said.

"We are seen as undertaking a kind of political infidelity. And I think this can be cleared up, but left as it is, New Zealand will cease to really matter to China - and this will hurt our trade hugely.

"It's possible that this year there will be a fall of 50 percent in tourism from China. So really there are ramifications."

Official figures out today show Chinese visitor numbers dropped slightly in December on a year earlier.

But Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts said the Chinese visitor market was still strong.

"Around eight percent growth in Chinese numbers in the last year. Of course at this time of year - Chinese New Year - we have very large numbers of visitors in New Zealand.

"So we're not seeing any sign that the attitude towards New Zealand as a destination is changing at all."

But that's not the way it's being painted by the Global Times, which said some Chinese tourists are considering dumping plans to visit New Zealand as a way to punish the country.

It quotes one Beijing worker as saying, "New Zealand stabbed us in the back, but asks for our money. This is double faced."

It specifically notes that customs officials here can examine electronic devices when tourists arrive and that the Five Eyes members, which include New Zealand, have all talked about banning Chinese company Huawei from rolling out 5-G in their countries.

David Mahon blames both the Huawei decision and last year's Defence policy statement, which raised concerns about China's growing influence and its actions in the South China Sea.

Defence Minister Ron Mark said he'd rather not comment on the statements of one businessman with clear commercial interests and he was confident China and New Zealand had a strong defence relationship.

He said he caught up with his counterpart General Wei in Singapore last year, who was very complimentary towards him.

Judy Chen from the Tourism Export Council said there was no evidence the Huawei decision was hampering visitor arrivals.

"We have seen some softening of the market in China.

"However, the slow down is generally linked to economic softening or the pricing of New Zealand.

"So there's certainly no indication of any backlash from the Huawei situation."

Chris Roberts said tens of thousands of happy Chinese visitors in the country right now served as better evidence of a positive market than nameless reports.

"We've seen reports of one un-named Chinese traveller in Beijing who doesn't want to come to New Zealand because of the decisions around Huawei.

"I don't think that's a realistic gauge of how Chinese think about New Zealand as a destination."

Fishing giant Sanford - which has National Party President Peter Goodfellow on its board - has today reported issues getting salmon exports to China cleared through the country's ports.

However, a New Zealand government spokesperson explained the export issues as likely to be due to skeleton staff being on deck due to the Chinese New Year holiday.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise chair Andrew Ferrier told a select committee yesterday the entity had no reason to believe anything was awry in the relationship between the New Zealand Government and China.

"We've all been dealing with China a long time - I certainly did in my Fonterra days - and you're always going to have some friction at the border," he said.

"We just don't have enough evidence to make a prediction that there's anything new right now. I know everyone is speculating on it, but we don't have enough evidence from our customers to give us anything."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also put out a statement today, saying it has not received any indication of anything out of the ordinary in China's border clearance procedures for New Zealand products.