29 Apr 2020

Ski field operators sure they can 'handle' crowds in alert level 2

5:48 pm on 29 April 2020

Maintenance teams are on the ski fields this week for the first time as operators get ready to open in June.

Skiiers on the Rockgarden at Whakapapa Ski Field, Mt Ruapehu in 2018.

Whakapapa Ski Field on Mt Ruapehu. (File photo). Photo: Natalia Catalina / 123RF

But the billion-dollar industry - which employs about 3000 people and accounts for two million visits per year - still doesn't know how many skiers will be allowed on the mountains at a time and how many will turn up.

Operators want special dispensation from the government to allow more than the 500 people permitted at level 2 or it may not be viable for them to open.

"If we get to alert level 2, yes we will open," Cardrona Alpine Resorts general manager Bridget Legnavsky said. It runs Treble Cone and Cardrona ski fields.

"We'll open to the local market, people in the region. If we get to alert level 1 we will also open but we'll have hopefully more people because we'll be able to travel more."

About 5000 people a day ski at Cardrona and Treble Cone. This season at level 2 estimates suggest it will be quarter that and at level 1, about half the usual number.

But that is well above the 500 limit on mass gatherings permitted at level 2.

Legnavsky said a special classification from the government would be needed to allow them to let more people onto the ski fields.

"A ski resort is kind of like a small town and it tracks and traces people really well with ticketing and scanning systems, so things like gathering spaces, tracing, hygiene and distancing, we will be able to handle really well.

"What we don't want is to be considered as a singular outdoor arena.

"Where people gather in queueing areas, beginners areas that might be limited to 500 people but we want to make sure that people understand that we've got a lot of space, we've got 500 hectares so it shouldn't be that the whole resort is limited to 500 people," she said.

'It is beginning to feel a lot like winter'

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts chief executive Jono Dean said the whole industry needed clarity about mass gatherings. He said it was too soon to say whether ski fields would open if they were limited to 500 people.

"Certainly the initial indications are it is pretty challenging financially to sustain a ski area of our size and magnitude, and as is the case for many ski areas throughout the country whether we are able to justify our operations for a limited number of visitors."

Earlier this month, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, which runs Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields, warned that the worst-case scenario of staying closed for winter would mean a loss and an increase in debt that was unacceptable for the company and its bank.

It couldn't commit to hiring people to get the mountain ready and its staff had taken 40 percent pay cuts. But this week it is more upbeat with crews finally allowed on the mountain fixing and refurbishing the lifts.

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With Alert Level 3 now in place our operational team will be back on the mountain this week completing general maintenance tasks in preparation for the winter ski season. The ‘on-mountain’ team will be following stringent new Health & Safety requirements to ensure the safety of themselves while they’re at work and also the bubble they return home to after work. The rest of our team continues to work from home in Alert Level 3, but we’re available to answer your questions via social media or our website Help Centre - link in bio. Some of you have been asking us about the planned increase in our season pass pricing on 1st May – we have decided to extend the current pricing until the 31st May so there is still an opportunity to purchase for season 2020.

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Dean said that work aws critical to opening in time, when the weather and coronavirus permit. There's a light dusting of snow on Ruapehu and it is much cooler.

"It is beginning to feel a lot like winter," he said.

On a good day about 5000 people ski on Ruapehu, mostly New Zealanders.

Operators say opening the ski fields will be the first chance to give domestic tourism a shot in the arm, not just for them but the surrounding resort towns and their hundreds of small businesses.

In Raetihi, Snowy Waters Lodge owner Sandy Waters said news that maintenance crews were working on the mountain gave her hope that she would be back in business this ski season.

"Sitting here looking at my calendar right now it is about as grim as it was when I first started 15 years ago.

"It makes me nervous. We have a lot of regular groups that book in year after year. There'll be so much instability for them around their job security and their own income so I can completely understand why they need to hold off booking if they don't know what the future holds either."