Australia ski season 2020 opens: Skiers warned to be patient in unusual season

There's not much snow yet, but ski resorts are preparing for a season like no other as thousands of snow aficionados head to the alpine region for winter.

Monday marks the official beginning of the delayed ski season although Mt Buller, Mt Hotham, Falls Creek and Perisher will run their first chairlifts from Wednesday.

It's two-and-a-half weeks later than the usual Queen's Birthday long weekend opening, but late is better than never for the hordes of skiers and snowboarders waiting to hit the slopes. Light snowfall is forecast for early in the week to complement the man-made snow.

However, the season will look and feel markedly different to usual, according to Colin Hackworth, chief executive of industry peak body the Australian Ski Areas Association.

"The biggest change this year is having to plan ahead," he said.

This means less spontaneity as you won't be able to rush up to the snow after a big dump overnight. It means trying to align the trifecta of time off work, accommodation and lift tickets further in advance.

"You'll need to be patient - lines will likely be longer for lots of things."

Mt Buller is staggering lift ticket sales and prioritising people with confirmed accommodation bookings in its first release.

Mt Hotham and Falls Creek, both owned by American behemoth Vail Resorts, are only selling lift tickets up to July 19 for now.

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It's a marked contrast from Thredbo's approach, with the NSW resort releasing tickets for the entire season at once and seeing up to 35,000 people in a virtual queue for hours trying to access the website.

On the mountain, skiers and boarders living in the same household will be able to ride the chairlift together, but capacity will be halved for everyone else. That means two people per quad chair and one person per t-bar. Queues for the lifts will be spaced further apart than usual, and ski equipment will still be available for hire.

Resorts are encouraging guests to pack their own lunch to avoid queuing indoors to buy food, and new seating areas have been installed at Mt Hotham so guests can eat outside.

Falls Creek resort is dubbing this season "business as unusual".

It remains unclear how much in advance guests have to book, and whether single day tickets will be available the night before.

Much like the rest of Victoria, there will be "no sweaty crowded bars" to gather in after a long day on the slopes, Mr Hackworth said, while spas and saunas will also remain closed.

The trigger for a relaxation of all these restrictions rests firmly with state governments. But until then the industry is encouraging people to focus on the positives and cheer the fact the resorts can open at all.

"Had the ski season been due to start two months ago the consequences would've been catastrophic," Mt Buller Ski Lifts general manager Laurie Blampied said.

The outlook will be even better for the lucky people who hit the jackpot when their pre-planned trip coincides with a dump of fresh snow.

"I think the upside because of all the social distancing and reduced capacity [is] when you are here it's probably going to be a more enjoyable experience than it otherwise would be - I don't think there will be too much congestion," Mr Blampied said.

"We would like to have a better opening but given where we were a couple of months ago we're delighted to get open next week and hopefully make a lot of people happy."

Meanwhile, in the alpine NSW towns of Jindabyne and Cooma, local businesses are hoping that the ski season brings a much-needed injection of cash into the local economy.

After enduring a stressful summer full of smoke and looming flames, the tourist towns were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But restrictions are easing at just the right moment, in time for the winter cash cow known as ski season.

Zac Hidding is the owner of Birchwood Cafe in Jindabyne and says the twin disasters of the bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic have taken a huge toll on the region.

"Just after Christmas our business was booming - we always have a roaring summer trade at Birchwood which helps us through the quieter months," he said.

But just before New Year's Eve he said tourists were told to evacuate the area and his cafe closed on January 4.

"It was a Saturday and the sky was red and on fire, it was pretty scary. Luckily nothing eventuated and the winds turned the fires away from Jindabyne. However tourists stayed away from the area due to thick smoke for about a month."

Mr Hidding says the town is usually "absolutely thriving" during winter when the population swells from around 3000 up to 30,000 people. He hopes this year is just as busy.

"It's like a mini bustling city - without the infrastructure."

Such a large influx of temporary visitors puts a strain on local amenities. Jindabyne's only supermarket cops a beating and savvy residents know when to stay away.

The demand during peak season is so great that Patrick Killin, licensee of Jindabyne Real Estate, even drives to nearby Cooma to do his grocery shopping.

"I could spend 40 minutes in the car listening to music, or 40 minutes standing in line [in Jindabyne]," Mr Killin said.

"It's almost an unwritten rule that you'd be mad to go to Woolies between Friday midday and Monday midday. If you've forgotten something for dinner you're really kicking yourself."

There's great uncertainty about how the region will fare this winter. One school of thought is the 50 per cent capacity restrictions placed on Perisher and Thredbo ski resorts will strangle the tourist numbers.

But those restrictions may well be lifted as the season progresses if the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to remain low.

Birchwood Cafe owner Mr Hidding counts himself as "pretty optimistic".

"I'm positive it will still be busy in the town as people may not be able to ski [but] they will come support local businesses and shops instead."

University of Technology Sydney tourism expert David Beirman says the winter months are crucial to the Snowy Mountains region because "our ski seasons are notoriously short".

Jindabyne is among the top 10 per cent of Australian postcodes most financially affected by COVID-19. The region is also the most reliant in NSW on the government's JobKeeper package.

"It's hugely important, this time of year during the winter. Their economies boom because the hotels and motels are fully booked and people are spending money in the restaurants," Dr Beirman said.

"They are probably really excited about the idea of lots of people coming down there because they've been doing it tough since before the bushfires."

See also: Australia's ski season 2020: Your questions answered

See also: Podcast: Regional travel in Australia - the best places to visit

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