After a controversial stall at the starting blocks, the Government has announced a new launch date for the diplomatic fete that is to mark tourism-related cooperation between New Zealand and China.
The China-NZ Year of Tourism has been ongoing in practice for a few months, but the official launch celebration, set for February, between the two Governments was abruptly postponed due to “scheduling issues” on China’s side.
On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced it will be launched on March 29, which is likely to leave diplomats breathing a sigh of relief. It will be hosted by the Chinese Government lead by a visiting Chinese delegation under China’s Minister for Tourism and Culture.
Typically these events would fail to garner headlines, however the cancellation of the first event was one of a number of recent red flags to signal the important relationship with China had taken a turn for the worse.
Sources had suggested the postponement was due to China’s unwillingness to send a minister to attend, something the prime minister had rejected.
While Ardern has received a formal invite to visit China, her office has been unable to find a set of dates that work for Chinese officials.
She would be the first prime minister in more than 30 years not to visit New Zealand’s top trading partner, in her first year of Government. If she does not visit China before Parliament is dissolved next year, it’s likely she may not get there this parliamentary term.
There was also a flurry of delays of various New Zealand exports at Chinese ports, however consensus appears to be the alarm was unfounded and perhaps brought about by heightened concerns that the dynamic of the relationship had shifted.
Public data was limited, however the appears to be no evidence New Zealand was facing any economic reprisals yet – something many feared could come about following a decision from New Zealand’s external spy agency to block Chinese telco Huawei from building a new 5G network.
New Zealand has also embarked on a new Pacific policy called the Pacific Reset, which is at least in part aimed at countering the influence of China in the Pacific region.
It had also looked closer toward the United States to support security interests in the region and explicity named China as a security threat in the South China Sea. Both actions have irked communist lead super-power.
A glittering launch event to celebrate the year of tourism was scheduled to happen at Te Papa last month, amid the presence of the famed Chinese Terracotta Warriors exhibition currently on display at the museum.
As late as January 15, screen shots showed Government websites were still billing the event to go ahead, however it was postponed at the 11th hour to “a time and location to be decided”.
It was formally announced in March 2017, during a visit to New Zealand by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that 2019 would be a year dedicated to promoting Chinese tourism.
More Chinese visitors are coming to New Zealand than ever before, with 450,000 people visiting in the year to June 2018. This is set to increase to 800,000 visitors per year by 2024.
The Year of Tourism was expected to ramp up tourism in droves, but without apparent buy-in from the Chinese Government there were fears that projected tourism numbers could suffer.
China recently surpassed Australia to become New Zealand’s largest trading partner, with $27 billion in two-way trade. An upgrade to the 2008 free-trade agreement was being negotiated however talks appeared to be slow in progressing.