The country is very happy to welcome increasing numbers of Chinese tourists – apart from the way they drive, reports Chris Pritchard.

China is second only to neighbouring Australia in the number of foreign tourists arriving in New Zealand, and it is easy to see why: when you come from the world’s most populous country, New Zealand’s remoteness and empty spaces seem highly exotic.

Just over 400,000 Chinese visitors came to New Zealand last year, a record number, defying gloomy forecasts of a downturn by economists, government planners and tourism executives. The reason? In a word, terror. A wave of attacks caused many Chinese travellers to cancel planned trips to Europe and seek safer destinations. The outcome for New Zealand was a 16 per cent increase in arrivals from China. They also spent more freely than their compatriots in earlier years.

A wave of attacks caused many Chinese travellers to cancel planned trips to Europe

All this would seem good news for the tourism industry, which plays an important part in the economy, but from one thing. Chinese visitors are being blamed for a spate of road accidents, particularly in the scenic South Island, where many roads are narrow, hilly and winding.

Hiring a car is essential to reach many of the island’s sights, and Chinese tourists are allowed to drive in New Zealand if they produce licences from their home country. The number of Chinese taking self-drive holidays in New Zealand has doubled in the past two years. However, many Chinese who hold a licence rarely, if ever, drive a car at home. While Chinese tourists are involved in only one in 20 accidents on New Zealand roads, according to official statistics, it is argued that in certain areas of the South Island the proportion is far higher.

Tony Kokshoorn, mayor of the island’s Grey district, claimed Chinese drivers were involved in a quarter of crashes in his area, and called it a ‘major problem’. Inexperienced drivers lost concentration while admiring the stunning scenery, according to Kokshoorn. Vanessa Van Uden, a former mayor of Queenstown, a South Island tourism hub famed for skiing, described the situation as ‘bad’, with Chinese drivers finding icy roads particularly perilous.

CUTTING CRASHES: Kate Deng, co-owner of Christchurch-based Kate Travel, screens would-be drivers
CUTTING CRASHES: Kate Deng, co-owner of Christchurch-based Kate Travel, screens would-be drivers

Many accidents are minor, such as driving into ditches, but some are head-on collisions. New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport said 22 foreign tourists died on the country’s roads in 2015, but did not reveal their nationality. However, Li Xin, China’s deputy consul-general in Christchurch, conceded that high-profile accidents had a ‘negative impact’ on relations between the two countries.

Some New Zealanders have taken matters into their own hands – literally. There has been a spate of incidents in which local people have snatched car keys from tourists whose driving skills they question. The practice has been widely condemned, with politicians of all parties pointing out that Chinese visitors are a valuable source of revenue and create jobs, and vigilantes have been warned that they risk assault charges. John Key, a former Prime Minister, is among politicians strongly opposing mandatory driving tests for foreign visitors.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, a road safety campaigner who also edits a car buyers’ publication called Dog and Lemon Guide, argues that New Zealand should not recognise licences from countries, such as China, that are not a member of the International Drivers’ Licence Convention. ‘There’s currently an epidemic of fake driving licences originating in China, and even official licences may not be what they seem,’ he said. ‘Drivers give bribery money to police who then issue licences.’

According to the New Zealand Automobile Association, two of the biggest problems are tourists not understanding road signs, and forgetting to drive on the left. Chinese visitors are now given printed material explaining local road rules.

‘There’s currently an epidemic of fake driving licences originating in China’

Kate Deng, co-owner of Christchurch-based Kate Travel, which has brought 10,000 Chinese independent travellers to New Zealand in the past three years, concedes 30 of her clients were involved in crashes – including three requiring helicopter rescues. She gives would-be drivers a road safety test, and refuses to arrange car rentals for those who cannot provide solid evidence of driving ability. Those who don’t measure up are persuaded to use public transport.

‘You can have a driving licence for three to five years and hardly drive at all in China,’ said Deng. We ask, “Do you drive to work every day?”’ She now uses a company owned by a Chinese New Zealander who takes tourists for training drives, and explains road rules. Employees of Hertz New Zealand, meanwhile, can refuse to rent out vehicles if they think safety is an issue, said a manager, Mark Righton.

What has surprised some is that China has not taken offence. CCTV, a government-owned TV network, reported positively on New Zealand’s efforts to improve Chinese driving, showing a dash-cam video of a head-on collision involving a Chinese driver on the wrong side of the road.

Sydney-based journalist Chris Pritchard is a former BBC and Wall Street Journal correspondent who has visited New Zealand many times and is a frequent visitor to various Asian nations.  

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