Why Australia’s ski season will be very different to New Zealand’s

POW Backcountry at Thredbo. Photo credit: Thredbo Resort

There’s been a lot of movement, debate, gossip and rumours in the Australian and New Zealand ski industry in the past week.

While Australian resort representatives announced a COVID-19 Safe Plan being presented by the resorts to Federal and State Governments for consideration for a potential late season opening, New Zealand announced their season was go, then announced there would be no limit to skier numbers and then announced opening dates.

Across social media Australians started to hope for the same thing in their own resorts, forgetting some key elements. Numbers. We have a lot of them. We’ve said all along that resorts will need to cap the number of skiers per day and that’s been supported by those in the industry. 

Across the ditch, New Zealand’s resorts rely heavily on Australian skier visits. On any given day half of a mountain near Queenstown and Wanaka will be Australians. Take those away, then take away a financially stressed domestic market and you’ll be running at around 30% of usual skier days. Hence the reduced days that both The Remarkables and Mt Hutt will be operating during each week (Coronet Peak will be seven days). 

If, on a good day, Coronet Peak have 5000 skiers, then on a COVID day you can expect that to be around 1500. That’s far easier to manage across 280 hectares of skiable terrain than the numbers in Australia’s usual 2.3million skier day season. 

Australia’s ski industry is a predominantly domestic market. Even with an equally financially stressed domestic market, the Australian ski season numbers would simply be too large as historically is, to manage social distancing daily.

Perisher alone has 1245 hectares of terrain, a guesstimate of 20 000 skiers on a peak pre-Covid day, 3500 car spaces at Bullocks Flat, stretched to capacity parking at the resort and a maximum of 225 people per Skitube carriage with up to 11 carriages in service. Not only will it make sense to cap skier numbers it may also make sense to reduce the amount of terrain on offer dependent on lift operation costs.

All resorts will need to look at pomas and t-bars, and ski hire hygiene will also be an issue, ski school will be another one. We’ve heard everything from no ski school, to private lessons only, to small groups capped at 3 only, to no kids ski school only. Let’s just say 2020 is the season for intermediate to advanced skiers and snowboarders.

To keep contact tracing and ensure no ticket window crowds, skiers and boarders may need to register online and pre-register a car spot. As for season passes, that persistent rumour they will be refunded or credited in favour of single day and multi day passes only just won’t go away. 

Gatherings on the mountain can be monitored at specific and traditional gathering points – lift lines, hospitality decks, cafes and restaurants should the current gathering numbers increase by the time a season starts. 

Then there’s the accommodation. Something that New Zealand resorts do not specifically have to contend with, skiers and boarders drive to the resort, spend a few hours skiing then remove themselves from the resort to sleep off mountain.

Australia’s resorts are ski in ski out. Thredbo village alone has 4820 beds permitted under lease and in 2017 had almost a quarter of those in ski club lodges, mostly with shared bathrooms and kitchens. 

At the height of the isolation restrictions, we had been told by unnamed but reliable sources that resorts are expecting to operate at 50% of accommodation capacity, maybe less. With restrictions easing since, we can hope for tourism operators that this is no longer the case.

As Australian Ski Areas Association CEO Colin Hackworth told us last week, everything is conjecture, even the actual submitted plan, until the government gives the nod on any operating suggestions submitted. 

Hackworth also called for “patience” from the nation’s skiers and snowboarders. 

As restrictions lift and frustrated folk emerge from isolation, some far less wealthy than when they went in, tempers can flare. Social media went feral on NZ Ski when they announced how they intend to operate with Coronet Peak open seven days a week and The Remarkables open for school holidays and then just on weekends.

Skiers and snowboarders went for the jugular on The Remarkables social media, furious that the company wasn’t opening all week. Last I looked we’re in a global pandemic, tourism has been shattered, companies are closing, people are losing their livelihoods.

At one stage NZ Ski was talking of only opening one of the two Queenstown ski resorts, it’s a mammoth effort that they are able to open both, even at a reduced operating capacity. 

So the message for now is brace yourselves, Australia.

We’re expecting both operating and season pass operating announcements very soon, potentially even this week (*update: Epic Australia Pass released their refund policy). 

But whatever you are expecting from the ski season this year, throw it out the window, everyone is going to need to be flexible and patient.

We may be pleasantly surprised or we may be limited in 2020. Time will tell once government does.

Just remember, skiing and snowboarding is not an essential service, if we want the industry to survive then we’re all going to have to adapt. 

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Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.