New Zealand's top holiday spot, Queenstown, is bracing for an Aussie invasion as a surge in trans-Tasman bookings looks set to tip the number of Australian visitors soaring past pre-COVID-19 levels.
And Kiwis are welcoming the onslaught, inviting guests to have not only the time of their post-pandemic lives but to stay on and take up one of the many jobs going in the hospitality sector.
"In July we'll have more trans-Tasman flights than even before COVID, with Jetstar returning, Qantas and Air New Zealand ramping up the numbers and Virgin coming back in September," said Ruth Stokes, chief executive of the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce.
"It's going to be fantastic for both them and us, with the town buzzing and their good time giving others the confidence to come. If they want to stay on and work here too we'd love to have them!"
When the travel bubble first opened on April 19, most arrivals in both directions were for family and friend reunions.
"But now we're seeing that transition to leisure, sporting and business travel," said Tourism New Zealand's general manager for Australia, Andrew Waddel.
"The airlines are putting in really good capacity and early bolters are getting over to ski. Pre-COVID, Australians made up 40 per cent of our international visitors, so they'll be receiving a very warm welcome back and experiencing 'manaakitanga', our true generosity of spirit and hospitality."
Queenstown mayor Jim Boult was at the airport for that first flight in April to greet every visitor with gifts of Anzac biscuits. Now that the numbers are increasing as school holidays in both countries approach, and as ski season starts in earnest, he says he's "super excited".
"They're talking about 60 to 70 trans-Tasman flights a week to Queenstown," he said. "We've been through 15 months of really hard times and, because Queenstown is largely driven by tourism with international tourists bringing us $2 billion a year, there's been a lot of pain and anguish.
"But with the Australians coming back, it's as though the town has lifted its head again and everyone is loving seeing them. We have so much for them to do too – skiing, snowboarding, jet boats, jumping off bridges, bike-riding and some of the most picturesque walks in the world."
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said last week that demand for flights had doubled compared with pre-COVID numbers and according to the Queenstown Airport Corporation, for the winter season, 60 to 70 flights a week are expected between Australia and Queenstown. That compares with about 22 flights a week previously.
At present, there are flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with the Gold Coast returning in late July from Jetstar. Virgin Australia will restart services from September 18.
Since skiing in Japan and North America is off the table, ski bookings at Queenstown's major resorts, around Coronet Peak and The Remarkables, are all up – yet with the rest of the world still locked out, there will be plenty of room on the slopes.
"Bookings are looking solid and very much like they were back in 2018-19," said NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson. "We're absolutely looking forward to the Australians coming.
"And the sales of ski passes so far don't tell the whole story because often they travel to resorts and then buy their passes. But there's a high degree of excitement in Queenstown at the moment."
The strength of demand for Queenstown has meant tour company Liquid Snow is now opening up a new office there. Travel consultant Justine Fitzsimmons said: "It's all going gangbusters. Inquiries are still coming in strongly and we're advising people to be flexible with their dates."
It's all manna from heaven for the hotels. At the Hilton Queenstown, general manager Chris Ehmann says 50 to 60 per cent of his bookings are coming from Australia – even more than in 2019.
"We had been losing some of our ski business to Japan in recent years, but now everyone's back and we love it," he said. "The skiing is wonderful here and we have so much to do besides.
"Maybe some people might have stayed away in the past, thinking Queenstown was getting too busy, but now is the perfect time to visit."
At the Crowne Plaza nearby, general manager Stewart Manson also has bookings back up to 2019 levels, with more coming through all the time, from golfers and business conference travellers to skiers.
"I know you can travel a long way in Australia but I think it's the thrill for them of being able to visit, and experience, another country," he said. "Staffing can be a concern in Queenstown, but we're now extending visas for visitors.
"I came here to visit for six months and have stayed six years, and if Australians want to do the same … they'd be welcome."
Skiing in Australia v New Zealand
Queenstown, New Zealand
Lift Passes: from $NZ99 a day (if you buy three or more days) or $NZ139 for a single day
Ski Rentals: $NZ50 a day
Ski Bus: $NZ15 return, numerous pick-up locations
Lessons: ½-day group lesson $NZ99 and full day $NZ135
Kids: seven years and under ski for free.
Thredbo, New South Wales
Lift Passes: from $149 a day (if you buy seven or more days) or $169 for a single day
Ski Rentals: $84 a day
Ski Bus: free shuttle bus and free parking
Lessons: 2-hour group lesson from $85, 2-hour private lesson from $285
Kids: from $89 for kids aged 5-6 years; $10 for kids aged under five
Mt Buller, Victoria
Lift Passes: from $119 a day
Ski Rentals: $64 a day
Ski Bus: free shuttles from carparks to Village, entry/parking is $49 online (day entry)
Lessons: 2-hour first-timer group lesson from $99, 2-hour private lesson from $373
Kids: from $66 for kids aged up to 18 years (also over 65s at kids' prices); kids aged under five ski free
$NZ1 = $A0.93
Source: NZSki, Thredbo Media, Mt Buller Media.