Coronavirus and travel: NZ ski fields to open, but Australian snow season remains in doubt

As Australia's ski resorts nervously await approval for their own snow season, New Zealand has lifted its ban on domestic travel under its Alert Level 2, meaning its ski fields can operate, having recently received official government approval.

"In Level 2, we will be open and that's great news for our team and our town," said Bridget Legnavsky, general manager at Cardrona and Treble Cone ski fields near Wanaka, in the South Island.

"It's been challenging to navigate a new environment, but we all have one goal this year and that's to open safely for our guests. We have been working hard to demonstrate to government that we can implement safe procedures across our ski areas at Alert Level 2."

The aim is for a June 29 start but with just the domestic market at the outset, they'll need to resize operations to suit – "we can't open both mountains all the time, we can't open all lifts."

Ms Legnavsky said domestic visitors were about 50 per cent of their market. Their business could expand if, as they hope, travel is permitted between Australia and New Zealand. Australian visitors normally make up 30 per cent of the resorts' business.

NZ Ski, which operates Mt Hutt near Christchurch and Coronet Peak and The Remarkables ski fields near Queenstown plans to stagger their starts.

Skiing The Remarkables outside Queestown.

Skiing The Remarkables near Queenstown.

Chief executive Paul Anderson said Mt Hutt would be the first to open, in mid-to-late June, operating three days a week at the outset before scaling up in early July to at least five days a week.

"At Mt Hutt we tend to get some great dumps of snow but that can mean we are closed because of the weather. By planning for the five best weather days we'll be able to give our guests more certainty on opening days," Mr Anderson said.

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In Queenstown, Coronet Peak should open daily from late June after maintenance work that was put on hold during the NZ lock-down.

The Remarkables should be open from early July for the two weeks of the New Zealand school holidays and then on weekends at a minimum. They hope to have a new six-seater chairlift completed in time for opening.

"We do have the capacity to scale up our operations across all of our mountains if we see guest numbers that warrant this as the season progresses," he said.

The NZ industry and government have agreed to specific guidelines for ski resorts to allow them to operate safely.

The guidelines require resorts to manage physical distancing, ensure contract tracing is in place and to increase cleaning and sanitation. The large areas over which ski areas operate mean that there is no cap on the total number of people allowed on the ski area, provided physical distancing can be managed. Ski resort restaurants and hospitality facilities will be subject to hospitality requirements.

Meanwhile Colin Hackworth who runs the Australian Ski Areas Association, the industry body that represents the lift company owners at each Australian snow resort, remains optimistic.

He said until they had a timetable for the relaxation of travel restrictions and an increase in numbers at gatherings, the resorts were unable to confirm season-opening dates.

"Even if we can't get open for the June long weekend, as is usual, if we can get July, August and September, that'd be a good result. We'll just have to wait and see what's announced."

He said the resorts were "waiting patiently and developing their Covid-safe operating plans; they'll be ready to open when the health authorities deem it safe to do so."

Even though the NZ ski fields are in a position to open, Hackworth thought it unlikely trans-Tasman travel bans would be lifted "at least for some months."

The Victorian Government's position on snow sports, effective from May 12 until May 31 states "Snow sports can continue. Use of shared sporting equipment should be minimised and there should be no sharing of equipment that touches the face or head (like helmets, goggles or masks). Travel is allowed only for permitted activities and includes day trips but no overnight stays. As always, Victorians are being asked to use common sense when it comes to travelling."

Vail Resorts, which owns the lifts at Perisher in New South Wales and Falls Creek and Mount Hotham in Victoria, said it was "continuing to prepare for the 2020 winter season. We are closely monitoring the progress of Covid-19 in Australia and globally. As the season approaches, we will advise of any planned changes to resort operations."

Contact tracing is an area the mountains have a slight edge – passes for ski lifts at all the major resorts work on a RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) system so skier movements can be tracked and traced according to time and location, however major challenges remain in areas such as communal accommodation.

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