Worry over Chinese turn-off

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An unexpected drop in Chinese New Year visitors is worrying Queenstown’s tourism boss.

Chinese taking New Year holidays in Queenstown have topped up hotels during summer peaks in recent years.

This week, however, ‘vacancy’ signs hang outside resort hotels and rooms are still available on booking sites like Wotif.

Local Chinese restaurateur Ming Hahn is busy with independent travellers, but estimates that Chinese bus tour numbers have at least halved this year.

“Last year, everything was packed, packed, packed.”

Some visitors had to start dinner at 4.30pm to fit everyone one in, he says.

He believes Chinese group tours have been put off because Queenstown hotel prices, particularly, are dearer than in other destinations.

“It’s stupid – three- to four-star hotels are charging five-star prices.”

Destination Queenstown boss Graham Budd is still analysing what’s caused the drop-off but concedes the cost of accommodation “is likely to be one of the factors”.

Group bookings have cancelled, he’s heard, because they couldn’t get accommodation or it’s too dear for them.

“Typically, we do have a slightly softer period in the back end of January and, relatively speaking, Chinese New Year is early, so there might be some effect from that.”

After double-digit growth in the Chinese market in recent years, Budd reveals that Chinese visitor visas for NZ were 25 per cent down last month.

“This is only January, so I don’t know what’s going on for other months either side of it, but it is concerning at the moment.”

Budd says declining Chinese numbers fly in the face of a significant increase in Chinese air capacity into NZ.

He believes another factor is tourism industry bods for some time have been spreading “the wrong message” that Queenstown’s full in peak season.

“I hate this message because there would be very few times of the year – previously, perhaps Chinese New Year – where it would be would be very difficult to find a room if you hadn’t pre-booked.”

Though Chinese New Year business is down, Budd says it’s important to note that Queenstown’s ‘summer’ tourism season now lasts all the way from October to March/April.

Local Tourism Industry Aotearoa hotel spokesperson Brian Howie says though room rates might be putting off Chinese tour groups, “we’re still seeing those rooms taken up by [free independent] travellers, not necessarily Chinese”.

Echoing Budd, local Novotel hotelier Jim Moore says: “Certainly some of the comments that were made over the last six months about Queenstown being full haven’t helped.

“Even on New Year’s Eve, I had a couple of rooms available, and on the day maybe up to 20 rooms available.”

If pricing is putting off the Chinese market, “at the end of the day, we’re all going to have to look at that, I suppose”.

While $300 to $400 nightly tariffs might appear high, “if you look internationally, those prices are probably not out of the realm of what you’d pay”.

Business, he says, “is still pretty positive”.

“There’s still a lot of people around, but we’re not quite full.”

Airbnb might also have be having an impact, he says.

scoop@scene.co.nz