The coronavirus outbreak could prompt a significant tourism decline, industry chiefs warn, with Chinese officials moving on Monday to prevent citizens from booking any overseas tours.
China is New Zealand’s second-largest international visitor market and one of the most valuable in terms of holiday visitor spend, numbering close to 450,000 travellers in 2018 spending around $1.6 billion.
Many Chinese travel to the antipodes for the traditional Lunar New Year holiday festivities which began last Saturday and last for some 23 days.
Tourism New Zealand chief executive Stephen England-Hall told AccomNews: “The impacts of the coronavirus on the New Zealand tourism sector are at this stage unknown but we expect that there will be a decline globally in short term arrivals from China. New Zealand is not immune to this.
“The exact level of decline is at this stage unknown, given the situation is still evolving but we are hearing reports of tours being cancelled.
“Around 90 per cent of travellers this time last year from China would have come through a Chinese tourism bureau, so the suspension has the potential to have a significant impact on the NZ industry and economy.”
China has locked down several cities around Wuhan and suspended flights into and out of the epidemic hub, a process restricting travel for some 36 million people.
The flu-like illness has officially killed 82 and infected close to 3000 people, leaving health authorities around the world scrambling to take action to prevent a global pandemic.
While Aotearoa has yet to identify a coronavirus case, the heightened watchfulness prompted a false rumour that a guest at Queenstown’s Rees Hotel had been the first person diagnosed in NZ with the illness. The rumours posted on a Facebook message by a person with no connection the the hotel “simply are not true” and have caused “unnecessary distress” according to hotel management.
Travellers arriving in New Zealand from China are being screened as part of the effort to curtail the spread of the illness.
As tourism-related stocks, including Tourism Holdings and Air New Zealand, led a third day of local market declines, an ANZ report on NZ’s economic prospects has described the coronavirus threat as “potentially devastating”.
The report said that while the the impact of the Sars global epidemic in 2003 turned out to be not as bad as predicted, the New Zealand economy’s exposure to China “is much greater now”.
Hospitality NZ CEO Julie White says that while it is too early to predict the extent and impact on the industry, some members “have reported have started to receive cancellations”.
“Chinese New Year is a peak travel time for New Zealand, normally 15,000 were due this week. The China international visitor arrivals makes up ten percent of overall international arrivals into New Zealand, 30 percent of Chinese arrivals are groups,” she said.
“It is our first priority to care for our visitors and people of New Zealand. Hospitality NZ are monitoring the impact to our members (and) we will be keeping both Tourism NZ and the Government informed.”
New Zealand Hotel Owners Association executive director Amy Robens agreed it was too early to judge the long-term impact of coronavirus but acknowledged: “For hoteliers more dependent on the Chinese market the financial impact is significant”.
“Popular New Zealand destinations for Chinese visitors are Queenstown, Auckland and Rotorua so hotels in those regions are likely to be most affected,” she said.
“Hoteliers will be looking to other long-haul markets to compensate including North America and European markets focusing on conference, meetings and the leisure market.
“On the domestic front, travellers can expect very competitive deals and innovative packages to encourage travel throughout New Zealand.”
A Tourism Industry Aotearoa spokesperson said the organisation had heard “a few anecdotal reports of cancellations” and has set up a web page for members with latest Ministry of Health updates.
World Health Organisation officials have so far refrained from classifying the outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern” as it seeks to contain the outbreak without disrupting economic activity.
But some 10,000 New Zealanders sceptical about the wait-and-see approach to travel bans last week signed an online petition calling for medical screening at New Zealand’s airports.
The petition’s founder, Kayla Denise, said: “We can’t just keep waiting, hearing updates of where it’s spreading too… if it hits us, then what? We may not be a direct flight from Wuhan but people can still travel to New Zealand (sic).”
Health minister David Clark this week confirmed staff would be screening all flights from China.
“I want to assure the public that New Zealand is well prepared for these sorts of situations – we are active and alert, but not alarmed,” he said.