Over one billion New Zealand dollars worth of expected tourist spending “disappeared” in New Zealand’s latest annual forecast. Last year’s report had projected NZ$15.34 billion worth of tourist spending by 2023, a number that was lowered to NZ$14.2 billion in this year’s report. The key reason for the lowered expectations is a significant slowdown in arrivals and spending from New Zealand’s second-largest tourism source market: China.

Last month, Australia’s statistics agency reported that the country received close to 1.4 million Chinese tourists in the year to February 2018—establishing China as Australia’s largest tourism source market for the first time. Australia’s second-largest tourism source market is now New Zealand.

In New Zealand, a similar development has been expected for some time, with China expected to overtake the country’s closest neighbor, Australia, as the most important tourism source market in terms of visitor spending.

However, the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment’s latest report on the matter is conceding that this switching of places between China and Australia will likely take longer than previously anticipated. According to the report, Chinese visitors are expected to just about overtake Australian visitors in tourist spending by 2024. In terms of visitor arrivals, however, Australia is projected to remain New Zealand’s largest market for the foreseeable future.

The report notes that “poorer-than-expected results for 2017 in Chinese arrivals and spending estimates have led to a significant revision in forecasts downwards from the 2017-2023 edition.”

And the “significant revision” is indeed quite significant. In last year’s issue of the report, the ministry had projected China to overtake Australia in visitor spending as soon as in 2021. New Zealand also gives itself some leeway with projections regarding China, noting that “factors driving the Chinese visitor market are complex and uncertainty remains around expected growth.”

While it’s understandable that 6-year forecasts are inherently difficult to produce to a satisfactory level of accuracy, New Zealand’s radically different forecasts in the span of just 12 months do warrant the question if the country has been too bullish on Chinese tourism.

Did market conditions really change that dramatically in the last 12 months to warrant an over NZ$1 billion downgrade and a 3-year delay in China’s overtaking of Australia—or were expectations set too high in the first place?

The truth of the matter is probably a little bit of both. While the Chinese tourism market is still around and kicking, arrival growth in New Zealand basically stalled in 2017—growing at just 2 percent year-over-year. In comparison, Chinese arrivals in New Zealand grew by 15 percent in 2016.

The ministry leaves the door open on exactly why arrivals from China slowed down so dramatically but claims that it may be partly attributed to a strong New Zealand dollar and “price sensitivity in the market.” The first of which can hardly be verified by a NZD:RMB exchange rate chart, and the latter of which can’t explain why other up-and-coming markets like India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam enjoyed strong growth in the same period.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to make accurate forecasts of Chinese tourism flows. But even so, destinations like New Zealand may need to try to curb their enthusiasm about Chinese arrivals in order to avoid raising false hopes and expectations among industry stakeholders.

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