WELLINGTON (Reuters) - British backpackers Alan Hepper and Emily Gray-Upton were shaken from their beds and evacuated from their Wellington hostel when a huge earthquake rocked central New Zealand on Monday, but are continuing their holiday through the "Shaky Isles" regardless.
Tourism operators say many other visitors are doing the same and bookings from overseas appear largely unaffected so far, easing concerns about a major hit to New Zealand's biggest export earner.
"Everyone is just working out a way of continuing their time in New Zealand," said Hepper, 26, who is two weeks into a year-long trip around the world that includes a month in New Zealand. "It's all part of the experience."
The pair now plan to fly to Nelson, avoiding the worst of the damage along the east coast of the South Island, where massive landslides blocked road and rail links after the 7.8 magnitude tremor.
Australian travel firms Flight Centre and Contiki both said they had seen no immediate impact on bookings to New Zealand, with most people content to travel as planned and bypass affected areas.
"A relatively large number of passengers travelling to New Zealand (from Australia) are visiting friends and relatives," said Haydn Long, a spokesman for Flight Centre Travel Group in Brisbane.
"These people will generally travel as planned. This particular sector may, in fact, grow as people will sometimes want to go home to see their families and lend a hand."
Australia is New Zealand's largest tourism market, providing almost 1.4 million visitors in the year to September, with China No. 2 at more than 400,000 and growing fast.
Liu Lian, an official at the Chinese consulate in Christchurch who was handling the rescue operation, said the consulate had not yet heard of Chinese tourists cancelling trips to New Zealand. Christchurch is the South Island's largest city and was devastated by a 2011 quake that killed 185 people.
"If there were any effect it is only temporary. Natural disasters are a possibility everywhere," he said.
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Drawn by the stunning scenery, made famous in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, international tourists contributed NZ$14.5 billion ($10.31 billion) to the New Zealand economy in the year to March, private-sector Tourism Industry Association (TIA) estimates. That was up almost 20 percent on the previous year, overtaking the dairy industry as the biggest export earner.
Tourism New Zealand said it was too early to tell what impact the quake would have but expected visitors would be reviewing their plans in the short term.
Christina Leung, senior economist at the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research think tank, said tourism tended to be hit harder by events such as earthquakes than other sectors.
Though the damage so far did not look as bad as the 6.3 magnitude quake that hit Christchurch in 2011, tourism’s central role in the economy meant that any fallout was a concern.
Most of the impact from the Christchurch quake was due to damage to tourism infrastructure such as accommodation and other facilities, Leung told Reuters.
"So to that extent, it really just depends how much damage has been sustained in these earthquakes. It’s quite early days and from what I understand the impact will be more modest," Leung said.
In the hardest-hit town of Kaikoura, stranded tourists were cared for by indigenous Maori, given shelter in large communal halls and fed crayfish, the town's famed local delicacy.
"It will definitely have an impact because there’s no way for tourists to get in or out of the town," said Mark Solomon, a leader of the Ngai Tahu tribe, which runs whale-watching operations among other businesses around Kaikoura.
Backpacker Gray-Upton found the quake scary but said it was "just one of those things".
"We've had the most amazing two weeks so far ... and I look forward to what the South Island brings."
($1 = 1.4061 New Zealand dollars)
(Additional reporting by Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Paul Tait)
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