New Zealand and Australia ski seasons and travel bubble: Battle to win skiers

The trans-Tasman bubble brings with it a competition for Australian skiers and snowboarders.

The New Zealand resorts expect to run at full capacity this year, in Australia things aren't quite as clear, with COVID-safe capacity constraints in place, but potentially easing, they plan to operate somewhere between last year's restricted-capacity level and a normal season.

With expectations of limited capacity, some Australian areas are now selling multi-day lift passes for specific dates so skiers and snowboarders who have booked accommodation can try and also secure their lift access.

But those limitations may mean more Australians than usual set their sights on the Kiwi snowfields.

Air New Zealand had record sales immediately following the announcement of the trans-Tasman bubble. That was in part Kiwis securing an escape to Queensland beaches over winter, but Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said, "Queenstown had a really significant uptake", with several thousand Australians booking flights there.

Australians usually make up about 40 per cent of the winter business at the Queenstown resorts and 30 per cent in Wanaka, but that's just on the mountain – they're also booking beds and eating at the restaurants and buying all their supplies at the local shops.

Paul Anderson is chief executive of NZSki which owns Coronet Peak and The Remarkables near Queenstown and Mt Hutt near Christchurch. "We think there's a lot of pent-up demand," he said, "there's a lot of Aussies who haven't been able to ski either in Australia last year or in Whistler or Hakuba or Niseko over the Christmas break.

"It's a bit of a guessing game as to how many will come. I'm hearing from some accommodation providers that they're either full in July or close to capacity already," he said.

Over the range in Wanaka, Bridget Legnavsky, general manager for Cardrona and Treble Cone resorts says: "Do we expect some Kiwis to go to Australia and go to the beaches? Absolutely we do, but we also know there's a really pent-up demand in Australia. There's a lot of good Australian skiers and snowboarders that go to Japan and the US and Europe and those people have missed that, so we're hoping they'll come here.


"We've got Cardrona with that wide open intermediate terrain and high-end park and pipe adrenaline offering and then we've got Treble Cone that's just beautiful, natural and steep with just a huge amount of terrain.Treble Cone becomes really important to us there [for attracting more accomplished skiers and boarders]."

They were caught by surprise last year, expecting a quiet snow season given the unemployment rate in New Zealand and a flat economy, but they still did 75 per cent of the business they would in a normal year. "What we really didn't factor in was how much money Kiwis spend overseas and how a lot of them go overseas in the winter time."

Legnavsky says she expects to go "straight back to normal numbers, to 2018 and 2019 numbers this year."

She said the bars, restaurants and cafes in Wanaka had mostly survived the pandemic. "Wanaka is good, it always really has had a healthy domestic market with most businesses surviving quite well through this."

In the main ski town, Queenstown, where Anderson is based, he says a handful of restaurants had been forced to close. "There's a few that closed temporarily and opened over Easter or have been running restricted hours to try and control costs. I expect they're hanging in there for the ski season when we get busier."

A local business barometer is the queue at the renowned hamburger outlet, Fergburger. When Traveller spoke to him just after Easter, Anderson leaned over his desk to look out the window for a status report: "there's no queue, but they are going strong," he said.

Australian snow travel operators were "thrilled to be able to book with confidence," Anderson said. "It's been a really tough year for those guys, at least we could operate our business, albeit at a reduced capacity, but they could sell really little so we're really hoping the Aussie public get out in force and support them and get over here into Queenstown."

The New Zealand resorts are keen on Australian skiers and boarders, but they also have their eyes on Australian snowfields workers. As well as locals, the resorts have relied on younger travellers on working holiday visas to staff the mountains, but they aren't available.

Specialist staff like snowsports instructors also fly in from the northern hemisphere and they won't be coming either. "They're very hard to find and train," Anderson said, "so the senior ones that we really need, we'll support through quarantine so they can train the rookie instructors.

"We're hoping we do get some Australians, they can come straight in, so we do expect to pick up a few from Aussie," he said.

Bridget Legnavsky said they'd be working hard on recruiting in New Zealand urban areas, but they'd also be looking to Australia for mountain staff.  "We've had a few people lined up and we've been on the phone straight away to them."

Colin Hackworth runs the Australian Ski Areas Association, the body representing Australian lift company operators, he said it was "certainly good news that a travel bubble has been created between Australia and New Zealand... while I prefer the skiing and resort atmosphere of the Australian resorts, the southern hemisphere ski industry is slowly returning to normal.

"The Australian and New Zealand resorts have always coexisted well with each other and it is great that they are able to do so again in 2021," Hackworth said.


The standard pre-season round-up looks at what's new in the resorts, but in reality it's more about what was new in 2020 that would-be mountain visitors didn't get to see or use. The biggest item in Australia is Thredbo's $15 million eight-passenger gondola which opened in June 2020 and replaced a slow old double chairlift.

It may understandably have gone under the radar last year, but Cardrona and Treble Cone resorts came under common ownership for the first time, meaning a shared lift pass between those two Wanaka resorts, just as there is between Coronet Peak and The Remarkables in Queenstown.

In 2020 a new lift opened at The Remarkables, the Sugar Bowl Express, a six-seater chairlift to improve access to intermediate and advanced runs and the area's terrain parks.

In New Zealand, there are two new lifts for 2021. At Mt Hutt, the Nor'west Express is an eight-seater chairlift to access beginner and intermediate terrain; and at Cardrona a four-seater chairlift (recycled from the other side of the resort) gives lift access to Soho Basin for the first time.