Chinese tourists rest near the Harbour Bridge in Sydney. (Reuters photo)

SYDNEY: China has leapfrogged New Zealand to become the top source country for travellers to Australia in the 12 months to February, Australian official data showed yesterday, as overall visitor numbers hit a record high.

Some 1.39 million Chinese visited Australia during the period, up 13.2% on the year prior and for the first time exceeding travellers from neighbouring New Zealand, Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed.

There were 1.36 million visitors from New Zealand in the period.

Overall tourist arrivals rose to a record high of 8.9 million during the year to February, while tourism-related spending in the year to December reached a record A$41.3 billion (US$32 billion).

“Tourism is generating income, wealth, jobs and economic activity across the economy,” Ryan Felsman, a senior economist at CommSec said in a note, adding the industry accounted for 10% of Australia’s exports.

Record numbers of tourists also visited Australia from the United States and India in the period. Chinese visitors are particularly sought after because they tend to stay longer, and spend more than visitors from other countries.

China has been Australia’s most valuable inbound tourism market since 2011.

Over the past five years, Chinese visitor numbers have doubled, driving tourism earnings and spurring a boom in hotel development and record profits for airlines and travel agents.

“The Chinese traveller is evolving and the growing middle class in China are chasing new experiences,” said Hianyang Chan, an industry analyst at research firm Euromonitor International.

“Australia is a preferred destination due to its vast landscape, pristine nature, good food, security and art and culture.”

Australia’s largest airline, Qantas Airways , posted a record half-year profit in February as higher visitor numbers drove both international and domestic flying.

Underlying profit before tax, its most closely watched measure, surged 15% to $976 million for the six months ending Dec 31.

Its main rival, Virgin Australia, reported its best result in a decade.

The boom has attracted dealmakers, most notably the $920 million buyout of resort operator Mantra Group by French hotel company Accor SA last year — forming Australia’s biggest hotel group.

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