Ski fans, get ready for the lift... in prices

SOME accommodation costs at Victoria's snowfields could double next year, with the price of their alpine leases skyrocketing, despite the state's three largest ski resorts - Falls Creek, Mount Buller and Mount Hotham - losing almost $40 million following asset write-downs and cost blowouts.

Adding to the financial woes of the $600 million alpine industry, as the ski season officially opened this weekend, is increased competition from international resorts, particularly in New Zealand.

An Ernst & Young report obtained by The Sunday Age reveals that the days of affordable family holidays may be numbered, with prices set to soar when many ski clubs are placed on new leases next year. Some non-profit lodges could be wiped out, while private operators will be forced to pass on rising service and utility costs to visitors, says the report, commissioned by the Victorian Snowsports Association.

''The shift in the availability of accommodation, combined with a number of other factors, has made the cost of accessing Victoria's alpine resorts for a day trip or overnight stay relatively less competitive. The cost of lift tickets and resort entry in Victoria has grown significantly and is adding to the relative cost,'' the report says.

Figures provided to The Sunday Age by the main resorts show that a weekend ski trip for a family of four this winter will cost between $1600 (Mount Buller) and $3700 (Falls Creek) - but these prices are set to rise next year.

The Ernst & Young report criticises the state government for failing to respond to a key recommendation in a 2008 review by the State Services Authority, which called for the government to ''support equitable [snow] access by community groups and individuals from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds''.

The Victorian Auditor-General's Office recently raised concerns about the financial viability of resorts at Mount Baw Baw and Lake Mountain.

A report by the Auditor-General released last month found the resorts needed continued government assistance despite a twofold increase in funding last year to $5.3 million.

The Mount Baw Baw Alpine Resort management board was also the subject of a review by consultancy firm Deloitte last August after allegations of financial mismanagement and impropriety. The report's findings have not been publicly released.

Mount Baw Baw chief executive Stuart Ord said the board had introduced measures to boost visits outside the ski season and reduce reliance on government funds. A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Ryan Smith said operations at Mount Baw Baw and Lake Mountain were being monitored.

But Victorian Snowsports Association spokesman Jim Logan-Bell said some resort board members were motivated by self-interest and the government had ''failed to rein these people in, and the future of skiing in this country is being neglected''.

He said the industry needed a comprehensive business and marketing strategy to compete with overseas rivals.

Annual reports of the four largest alpine resorts show that visits have stagnated over the past decade, with many skiers now taking advantage of the strong dollar to travel across the Tasman. New Zealand accounts for about 25 per cent of the Australian snow holiday market.

That figure is expected to rise after Qantas struck a $4 million deal last week to promote snowfields on the South Island. The decision infuriated Snow Australia chief executive Colin Hackworth, who described it as a ''government-sanctioned raid by a foreign power on Australia's tourism industry''.

He said the local industry was working hard to claw back market share.

The chairman of the Mount Buller & Mount Stirling Alpine Resort management board, Jennifer Hutchison, said the resort's modest profit last season was wiped out by a $25.7 million write-down of assets based on recent land valuations by the Auditor-General. She said infrastructure investment would boost year-round visits.

Yesterday, the state government provided a lifeline to the Mount Buffalo chalet, which has been closed since 2007. The government will fund a $500,000 development plan and offer a 99-year lease to private investors.