As Australian ski resorts contend with two years of pent-up domestic demand, with many resorts fully booked over July and August, New Zealand's ski fields are giving Australians a second chance at a snowy getaway.
On Thursday, COVID-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall announced New Zealand's pre-departure testing regime would be axed for all arrivals as of Tuesday, June 21, just in time for the peak July ski period.
The government's shift lines up with the opening of the New Zealand ski season, with lifts turning earlier than usual at some South Island resorts following a large snow dump last week.
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash said travel would now be easier and cheaper.
"For those people overseas who have been dreaming of international travel, my message is simple: New Zealand is open, and we're ready to welcome you," Nash said.
New Zealand was the most popular destination country for Australians in April, following its reopening, accounting for 12 per cent of all resident returns (34,380 trips), according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data.That's an increase of 365 per cent from the previous month, though still significantly less than pre-pandemic numbers.
Andrew Waddel, Tourism New Zealand's general manager Australia, said the country is eager to welcome Australians back this winter.
"Prior to COVID-19, 71 per cent of all international arrivals who skied were Australian, stayed an average of 10 days and spent 50 per cent of their time on the mountain," said Waddel.
"Since the border reopening was announced, the 24 ski resorts and many more tourism operators across both the North Island and South Island have been preparing for the arrival of international visitors, so we encourage Australians looking to head over to start planning now".
Having pre-departure testing removed from June 21 will also be a game-changer for tourism operators, according to NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson.
"We expect to see Australian visitation increase as airline connectivity builds in the coming months. Locally we have been really well supported throughout the pandemic and we have seen that again this season with passholder uptake," said Anderson.
Tim Barke, Lake Wanaka Tourism general manager, said that up until Thursday's announcement, there has only been a "trickle" of Australian visitors, but he expects that will increase.
"Feedback from offshore wholesalers and retailers and inbound tour operators has been that the testing requirements have been a significant barrier to booking. They have had a lot of enquiries but have found it difficult to convert these into bookings," Barke said.
New Zealand tourism operators face similar staff shortages to their Australian counterparts though. "There's an open invitation if Aussies want to come over and spend the winter here and have a working holiday. There's heaps of opportunity for them, it's quite a cool way to be able to live the lifestyle and do more than a week or two, and pick up some extra skills at the same time," said Barke.
In another note of caution, Barke said fewer seats and higher airfares, along with a lack of confidence in long haul travel, meant it could take as long as four years for business in his region to return to pre-COVID levels.
All the same, Qantas is already reporting a surge in demand for Queenstown flights.
"Qantas' capacity into Queenstown will be sitting above pre-COVID levels from July onwards," an airline spokesperson said. "We've added further flights to Queenstown for the July and September school holiday periods in response to the strong demand."
While the light shines brightest on the ski fields around Queenstown and Wanaka, there's much more scope than that in the New Zealand snow fields, with 24 club and commercial fields spread between the two islands.
Mount Dobson ski patroller and instructor, Archie Chisholm, said Australians shouldn't limit themselves to the better-known, bigger ski fields.
"I reckon the real hidden gem is the Mackenzie region in south Canterbury [south of Christchurch]. The fields here have such an amazing atmosphere and a huge range of terrain suitable for anyone and everyone," he said.
While the South Island ski season tends to run from mid-June to October, the North Island season starts and finishes a little later. Mount Ruapehu, south-west of Lake Taupo, is renowned for its late-season spring skiing.
Mount Ruapehu chief operating officer Travis Donoghue said: "My advice would be for Australians to come from August onwards for the best snow and to think about visiting us on weekdays, lift tickets are just $NZ84 (A$75) Monday to Friday."