The Clutha district experienced the biggest boost in popularity of all New Zealand’s tourist destinations for May 2023, according to figures released last week.

Clutha’s Kiwi guest numbers grew 97% compared with May 2019, while international visitors were up 39% — the highest proportional growth in guest nights relative to all other Regional Tourism Organisations (RTO).

Ongoing studies by the Tourism Evidence and Insights Centre (TEIC) and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) measure accommodation data, population estimates and electronic transactions and found tourism spending nationwide for May 2023 was greater than pre-Covid May 2019 levels for both domestic and international markets — particularly in Clutha.

‘‘To have a traditional fringe season month cranking is a great sign for the overall lift in tourism,’’ Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan said.

‘‘And it aligns with what we’ve been hearing from operators.’’

Debbie Duncan is visitor information manager for the Clutha District Council.

‘‘In the last 11 months our information centres had 30,096 domestic and 5694 international visitors through our doors, a 57.87% increase on the year,’’ she said.

‘‘[We’re] seeing adventurous travellers exploring on their own, especially in campervans and cars, and backpackers moving through the Catlins.

‘‘Cyclists have been especially visible this season, particularly on the goldfields trail between Lawrence and Milton.

‘‘Visitors appreciate the personal, local knowledge to help with their inquires about heritage, scenery or simply ‘where do I go for a good coffee or a bed for the night?’

‘‘Clutha District has a lot to offer . . . History through our museums or gold-panning to being completely alone on a wild beach with only the sea lions to keep you company.’’

Jenny Hall, owner of Kaka Point Accommodation, said her business was busy with domestic and international travellers.

‘‘We’ve had a busy summer carry on into the winter months with word of mouth and online reviews. In the summer it’s surfers and people getting off the beaten track and in the winter they’re here to check out the wildlife and the aurora,’’ Mrs Hall said.

Two moteliers spoken to were sceptical of the TEIC numbers, saying business in May had been almost non-existent after a very busy summer, but Pounawea Motor Camp proprietor Lee-Ann Dey said the nearby Owaka freedom-camping site was usually at capacity.

‘‘Last summer we were so busy we almost couldn’t keep up,’’ Ms Dey said.

‘‘It’s gone quiet since Easter, which is normal for camping over winter but the [Owaka] freedom-camping site is always busy and has a lot of buzz online. . .’’

Chief executive of economic development agency and regional tourism organisation Clutha Development Linda Moore agreed online reviews were a factor in Clutha’s secret being out.

She said local stakeholders were prepared for future tourism:

‘‘We have a Clutha Destination Strategy 2020-2030, based on managed growth of tourism, respectful of the community’s mindset and enabled by Investment from MBIE and council.’’

Tourism expenditure was approximately $45 million in Clutha District during the year to March 2023, she said.