We’ve just released the findings in our tracking survey New Zealanders perceptions of Asia, our annual mood-check of how New Zealanders feel about Asia. The Asia New Zealand Foundation has now been carrying out this national survey for 22 years.

It tells a story of how New Zealand’s engagement with Asia has changed over time, including through demographic change.

For the first time, nearly half of respondents say they know at least a fair amount about Asia. It seems we are approaching that magic “majority point”, following years of a general upwards trend. One big driver of the change is in those under 30.

Importantly, while mainstream media remains a key way of learning about Asia, we are seeing in this younger demographic the ripple effect of pop culture, social media, the influence of peers, and cheaper travel.

Younger people are connected to Asia in more ways and their understanding goes far beyond the 6 pm news and textbooks.

They have more opportunities to learn about Asia than their parents did and indeed the survey suggests they’re sharing their knowledge with older generations.

Why does this matter? Because the more that New Zealanders know about Asia, the more they are willing to invest in learning more, and the more they know, the more confident they are in their engagement.

Having the confidence to engage is key if New Zealand is to maximise the opportunities of its geographic closeness to this economically, culturally and socially dynamic part of the world.

BusinessNZ Chief Executive Kirk Hope has called for more focus on business ties with Asia.

“Continued work to broaden and deepen business relationships between New Zealand and Asian countries and ongoing development of trade agreements in the region are needed to ensure that New Zealand-Asian business prospers for the benefit of all,” Hope said.

The 2000 people surveyed were generally positive about the impact of Asia on New Zealand’s economy, particularly when it came to tourism from Asia. And the majority felt that it was important for New Zealand to develop economic and cultural ties.

We saw a significant rise in the number of respondents who felt not enough was being done to grow business links between New Zealand and Asia.

The survey also points to areas for improvement. Our self-assessed knowledge is far stronger for north Asia (the likes of Japan and China) than it is for South Asia (home to India and Sri Lanka), with Southeast Asia sitting in between.

In large part, this is because of trade links and because of investments that have been made in people-to-people exchanges and language learning.

Japan’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup this year will help too, and the survey shows a growing awareness of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

But with India and many Southeast Asian nations growing at remarkable speed, we should be able to do better, particularly when you consider the widespread use of English in those parts of Asia.

The report also underlines the consistent finding that it is personal experiences and connections that count, relationships, language, cultural involvement or travel.

Research we published earlier this year: Perceptions of Asia from a Te Ao Māori Perspective, points to this being a very real comparative advantage of Māori, who see themselves as having shared cultural values with many Asian peoples.

Of course, surveys like this are snapshots of moments in time and always need to be taken as such. But the trend lines and the data look positive, not only for New Zealand businesses but also for the wider population.

We live in a time in which growing isolationist sentiment is pushing back on global connectivity. And multilateralism is facing push-back from a unilateral approach to trade policy.

What this report tells us is that when New Zealanders look to Asia, at the personal level there remains a curiosity and a willingness to engage.

Much of that drive is coming from younger New Zealanders with access to new technology and with a more diverse group of peers than previous generations.

If New Zealand businesses are to make their way in the world successfully, then having a broader and deeper reach into Asia is going to be a critical success factor.

For the first time, nearly a majority of respondents say they know a fair bit about Asia. It’s our job to make sure that trend continues, that knowledge of Asia grows, and that businesses are able to have the confidence, ability, and skills to get deals done in the region.