Quaking in our ski boots

New Zealand and Australia have what some would call a 'healthy rivalry'. We may spit in the face of the Haka on the rugby field but when disaster strikes we traditionally go in and bat for our comrades across the ditch.

Disaster did strike in Christchurch on February 22 when a 6.3 magnitude 'aftershock' earthquake flattened parts of the town and killed 181 people in a town of only 350,000. Australia sent search and rescue, many who had been there at ground zero at the Thredbo landslide that killed 18 in 1997 and the Australian public started their own fundraising events for their friends in New Zealand.

Now, three months on and a month to the official start of the New Zealand ski season, what are Australian skiers and snowboarders doing to help?

Tourism numbers have predictably dropped into Christchurch with an 8.7 per cent fall in the four weeks immediately after February 22 and an 11 per cent drop in March 2011 compared to March 2010, with similar falls expected when statistics are released for April. For a country, and a destination, that relies so heavily on the tourist dollar, it is not looking pretty even with the Aussie dollar being worth NZ$1.35.

Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism Chief Executive, Tim Hunter, is spruiking his region in Australia this week in an attempt to reassure Australians that Christchurch is not only safe but also open for the tourist public. The city may have areas still closed off but 7100 beds are open with a further 11,700 beds outside of Christchurch in the surrounding ski regions and beyond. But are you willing to sleep in them?

"We have certainly dropped some 30-plus percent in visitor numbers in the Canterbury region but Christchurch is open for business with the major infrastructure back up and running" said Tim Hunter. "All of the local day trip options from Christchurch like Akaroa and whale watching are all also operating. 

"Australians can choose to stay in Christchurch or go straight to the ski fields. It is a personal choice. We certainly have the morbidly curious who find the earthquake ruins in Christchurch square a tourist attraction in itself. Canterbury certainly needs Australian tourists support."

Traditionally Australian skiers and boarders wanting to access Mt Hutt and the clubfields of Canterbury including Porters, Mt Olympus, Broken River and Temple Basin have always flown into Christchurch. Air New Zealand's direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne used to arrive after dark with many choosing to overnight in Christchurch rather than making the 90-minute drive to the ski base town of Methven.

Air New Zealand have changed their schedule with many flights now arriving mid-afternoon in a bid to encourage Australian skiers and boarders not wishing to overnight in the city to still visit New Zealand.

The problem for Christchurch is, how much are we willing to help? Do Aussies help 'in spirit' but not in commercial tourism because we think our own lives are at risk? The February earthquake was an aftershock from the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on September 4 last year and caused more devastation than the original.  But the original earthquake was 30-odd kilometres west of Christchurch.

Natural disasters are unpredictable. Human disasters are to a degree avoidable, when Bali was tragically bombed and Australians died we knew to stay away from high tourist traffic areas when going on holidays and many of us continued to support the island that Australia had contributed so greatly to creating. As the number one international inbound market for New Zealand, will the Australian skier and snowboarder feel the same way about skiing in Canterbury in 2011?

I will certainly click into skis in Canterbury sometime this year if the snow is good. The Arrowsmiths offer some of the best heli skiing and ski touring terrain in the Southern Hemisphere and you won't find a better day of skiing when the clubfields are 'on' and the weather gods aligned. The other benefit is you can take in both the Canterbury clubfields and the Mackenzie area's ski fields including the Mt Cook region on the way down to Queenstown and Wanaka.

Staying in Christchurch is not an issue for me, simply because I'm too mad a skier to have wasted precious time staying downtown overnight when I could drive for an hour and a half and wake up in Methven ready to make the short drive up the access road to Mt Hutt in time for first lifts.

Would I overnight in Christchurch otherwise? To be honest I can't say I would right now but I know plenty of Aussies who would. My reasoning makes no sense, why do I think that sleeping in a bed makes me more exposed than visiting during daylight? It's irrational but as Tim Hunter says, it's personal choice.

What will you do?  Will you overnight in Christchurch this ski season?  Will you fly into Christchurch and ski in Canterbury or will you avoid the region and stay in Australia or ski further south in Queenstown?  What responsibility do you think Australians have to Christchurch?

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