Snow resorts will miss the traditional June long weekend start of the ski season, and when they do eventually open visitors should expect longer queues for lifts, no group lessons and may have to bring their own helmets and clothing.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro said last week that lifting the ban on travel in regional NSW meant there would be a ski season in NSW, but resorts would “likely need time to put COVID plans in place”.
A spokesman for Vail Resorts, which owns Perisher, said the industry was working with government towards a date in late June for "the safe opening of the 2020 snow season".
Thredbo’s website states the resort will not open over the June long weekend despite the lifting of the NSW travel ban from June 1.
Skiing at Perisher was one of the activities featured in the state government’s "Love NSW from Home" tourism campaign launched earlier this month.
The chief executive of the Australian Ski Areas Association, Colin Hackworth, said that when resorts do re-open they are likely to operate at a reduced capacity to maintain social distancing, hygiene and sanitisation protocols, and gradually scale up operations as pandemic restrictions ease.
"What the resorts don’t want is a Bondi moment," Mr Hackworth said. "Someone photographing uncontrolled crowds of people in the queue for a lift for example.
"Resorts are going to manage very carefully the numbers of people who come up to the resorts."
Mr Hackworth said visitors to snow resorts should expect longer queues and reduced capacity on ski lifts: "Social distancing will be maintained at all times so, for example, a quad chair, you will ride alone or with family members."
Equipment such as skis, poles and snowboards would be available to rent. Boots would also be available to rent and subject to strict hygiene and sanitisation protocols, he said. "Clothing and helmets will only be rented out this year if we can find a satisfactory way to disinfect those items after each use."
Mr Hackworth said private lessons were likely to be offered if social distancing can be maintained, but it was still “under review” if either children’s or adult group lessons would be conducted.
Accommodation with shared facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms would need to review procedures to ensure compliance with social distancing, hygiene and sanitisation directives, he said.
Victoria is yet to confirm if there will be a ski season in that state, but cross-country skiing is permitted as a day trip following the easing of travel restrictions.
Visitors can also take day trips to Victoria’s alpine areas for snow play and sight-seeing, according to the state’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. “Back-country skiing is only possible if you don’t camp out and conditions allow.”
The party atmosphere at snow resorts is likely to be disappointing under COVID-19 restrictions that apply to bars, restaurants and nightclubs, according to Fiona Stanaway, senior lecturer in clinical epidemiology at the University of Sydney.
“Evidence from Europe where ski resorts had outbreaks earlier in the epidemic suggests that a lot of the spread amongst people was from tightly packed bars,” she said.
Dr Stanaway said there was a high risk of transmission in accommodation with shared kitchens and bathrooms: “Outside ski lessons would be of lower risk, especially if social distancing is maintained.”
David Beirman, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology Sydney, said it would be difficult “but not impossible” for snow resorts to open.
“The real question is whether it will be financially viable to do so,” he said. “Ski resorts are clearly very social places which depend on high volume business to be financially viable.”
Dr Beirman said many resorts were likely to be hampered by the lack of working holiday visa holders and backpackers to provide seasonal staff.
"Running ski businesses cost a fortune,” he said. “And alpine businesses cannot afford to operate when they can only have 10 or 20 customers.”