It is the year of the dragon for Chinese tourists coming to New Zealand with numbers up almost 40 per cent in the year to September.
But other markets are running out of puff, in the face of a high New Zealand dollar and a wobbly global economy.
For the first time, more tourists from China came to New Zealand in the past 12 months than from the United States and the numbers are expected to keep growing, with expanding air links and a growing Chinese middle class.
China is now New Zealand's third-largest tourism market, behind Australia in top spot, and Britain in second place.
Despite the boost from Chinese tourists, total visitor numbers in September alone fell a seasonally-adjusted 3.3 per cent from a strong result in August. There was a sharp drop in Japanese visitors, and a small dip in arrivals from the key Australian market.
The high New Zealand dollar, trading at about US82c yesterday, and a fragile global economy threatened to dampen tourism spending in New Zealand and put a dent into the economy, according to ANZ Bank economists.
Seasonally adjusted numbers from China hit a record 20,250 in September, jumping from a steady level of about 17,000 a month since March.
ASB Bank economists said: "Chinese visitors have been by far the largest growth market over the last two years, so this result is an encouraging one heading into the (peak) summer season."
But the typical Chinese tourist spends only 3 days in New Zealand, often as a tag-on to a trip to Australia. So ASB said there should be an effort to get Chinese tourists to stay longer, not just get more to come. The average foreign tourist stays almost nine days in New Zealand.
Air New Zealand's outgoing chief executive Rob Fyfe said as a country New Zealand had a lot of work to do to meet the needs of the growing Chinese and Indian markets. In the past, New Zealand depended on European markets and English-speaking visitors.
"But increasingly when we look at the trend lines, they are going to come from China, from south-east Asia . . . from India. And as a nation we do have to adjust our product offering to meet the needs of that market.
"It means being sensitive certainly to their language needs, but also different preferences in terms of food, in terms of activities, and expectations.
"I don't think we're doing it as quickly as I'd like to see us doing it. I think we're doing a great job of marketing the country. I think Tourism New Zealand is doing an excellent job in that regard. I think we've got lots of airlines flying here. But we do need to keep adapting our product to meet the needs of what the customer ultimately wants."
"With the Chinese middle class expanding and airline capacity to China having risen substantially, we expect this market to continue growing," Infometrics economists said yesterday.
In contrast, excluding the temporary boost from the Rugby World Cup last year, arrivals from Britain and the US were both down sharply between the September quarter in 2010 and the same period this year, dropping 22 per cent and 17 per cent respectively, Infometrics said.
But with the US economy improving and Air New Zealand lifting capacity to the US market, inbound US tourism would "slowly stabilise".
CHINA ON THE MOVE
September visitors from China: a record 20,250
In the year to September, 186,800 Chinese tourists came to New Zealand, up 38 per cent on the previous year.
Chinese tourist numbers are close behind the almost 200,000 British visitors in the past year.
While Chinese visitor numbers are on fire, the British market slumped 14 per cent in the year and Japan was down 7 per cent.
Chinese visitors spent $522 million in the June year, about $74m more than the US market and double the value of the Japanese market.
Total visitors in September: 179,100 (down from almost 220,000 last September during the Rugby World Cup)
Total visitors in September 2010: 174,200