Christchurch could rival Auckland in ethnic diversity as it attracts high numbers of migrants needed for the post-quake rebuild, says Massey University sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley.
He says up to 40,000 migrants are predicted to arrive in Christchurch in the next 18 months based on estimates from Canterbury Employment and Skills. This could prompt a "sea change" in the way immigrants are perceived by the city, which is one of the country's least ethnically diverse areas.
Dubbed the "earthquake effect" by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, people in Christchurch are said to feel more positive about migrants as a result of local immigrant communities playing a major role in helping with recovery after the February 2011 quake.
One thing he is clear about is that the demographic changes set to occur in Christchurch could transform the city infamous for its white supremacist National Front movement. While Christchurch does have small ethnic enclaves, hosting lantern festivals for Chinese New Year and Diwali festivals for the Indian community, the scale of the anticipated migrant influx is unparalleled in its history.
"The influx proportionate to the population is significant. I'm not sure we've seen anything like it in New Zealand", he says. "It's one thing to talk about it and a different to experience it. Conditions will change as you get a significant influx of culturally different people."
He says the city's businesses and employers need to be prepared to welcome large numbers of new migrants needed for construction, engineering and IT, and to consider services they need.
"If you bring immigrant workers in, you deliberately need to plan for their arrival, and use their skills but also make them feel welcome. Otherwise it's not going to work," says Professor Spoonley, who has researched and written about immigration and employment issues in New Zealand for the past 30 years.
A key issue is ensuring employers understand how to manage diverse work forces. "If you go from managing largely, if not wholly, Pakeha workers then who is going to help employers learn to manage a much more diverse work force?"
Beyond the workplace a range of services must be created to cater for large immigrant communities, he says. "They don't simply need jobs, they need doctors, dentists, real estate agents, hairdressers, food - a whole lot of ancillary or service jobs that are needed."
"Migrants look for support and infrastructure. This might be church, food they are familiar with, people who speak the same language".
He says the size of the influx could result in the country's third major immigration wave. Auckland was the destination of earlier waves - the first in the 1950s and 60s with Pacific Island migrants, then in the 1990s and after 2000 with Asians arriving.
Auckland's 1.5m population is now comprised of 40 per cent migrants, while around 20 per cent of Christchurch's residents are overseas-born, less than the 23 per cent national average.
Asia and Europe are the regions most of Christchurch-bound migrants are likely to come from, with India the obvious source of IT workers, Professor Spoonley says.
Christchurch business, community and civic leaders could draw on Auckland's 40 years' of experience with migrant communities, he says. "I'm not sure the labour market is one of them, because there is still a discounting of immigrant qualifications and experience. But there are a lot of agencies in Auckland that help immigrants adapt and I think some of that expertise could be made available to Christchurch."