The total number of international visitor arrivals in New Zealand in 2020 was 996,350. According to the New Zealand Official Year Book, the last time the number was this low was in 1992.
Almost a million international visitors sounds a large number, until it is compared with the totals for the previous years. In both 2018 and 2019 there were almost 3.9 million international visitors. Moreover, the total for 2020 was boosted by travel during the first quarter of the year, when just over 959,000, or 96 percent of the year’s total, arrived. The average monthly number of arrivals from April to December 2020 was just 4,145.
In December 2020 only 185 of the arrivals, i.e. only three percent of the monthly total, were in New Zealand to have a holiday. In itself, this number is not surprising, given our current COVID-19 related entry controls, but the sheer magnitude of the collapse can best be appreciated by comparing the December 2020 total, with the December totals in previous years. As the graph below shows, the number of international visitors coming to New Zealand for a holiday in December was greater than 250,000 in each year from 2017 to 2019. The December 2020 total is so small that it barely registers on the graph.
The December 2020 total is so small that it barely registers on the graph.
The effect of COVID-19 has been to reduce the total December spend by international visitors on holiday, from $850-$900 million in 2018 and 2019, to less than $1 million in 2020.
Another way of looking at how COVID-19 has affected our tourism industry is to show what the reduced numbers have meant for visitor spending. The International Visitor Survey indicates that the average visitor spends about $3,300 on their holiday, so the effect of COVID-19 has been to reduce the total December spend by international visitors on holiday, from $850-$900 million in 2018 and 2019, to less than $1 million in 2020.
These numbers make it clear why locations and businesses that rely mainly on international visitors are feeling so much pain right now. At national level, domestic holiday makers have helped to replace some of the lost international visitors, but domestic holiday makers do not necessarily visit the same locations as the international visitors, and their per capita spending is generally lower.
The numbers of international visitor arrivals will recover over time, especially if vaccination programmes for COVID-19 are effective. But the recovery will be slow. Businesses and locations that rely mainly on international visitors will need to adapt, if they manage to survive in the meantime.