Australian ski resorts developing plan for COVID-19 season

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“Be patient for a little while longer” – that’s the message from Australian Ski Areas Association CEO Colin Hackworth, the man commandeered with the spokesperson role for the ski resorts during the COVID-19 crisis.

We’ve heard little from Australia’s individual resorts at this time, and that’s deliberate as Hackworth says the resorts have been focused on having one message, together, about the season ahead. 

“The industry is very clear in wanting to be in lockstep with the State Governments in their push to protect people’s health and safety and the resorts are right behind that and will not do anything to compromise it,” said Hackworth yesterday to SnowsBest.

When pressed about a potential opening date, week or month he replied, “We don’t know, we just don’t know. We have to be patient, we remain hopeful that the ski season will open sooner rather than later, but we need guidance from government. I can’t pre-empt how long that will take.”

However, one thing we do know is that an industry wide COVID Safe Operating Plan is currently being prepared.

This will be submitted to Federal and State Governments and Health Authorities for consideration within days and will outline measures to ensure guest safety and adherence of social distancing, hygiene and gathering numbers, amongst other key points.

“That’s just one step in being able to operate ski resorts, once the plans are approved we will then need to wait for governments to relax the restrictions that are still in place – that’s regional travel and gathering numbers,” explained Hackworth of the plan.

“What I do know is it’s going to look very very different from previous seasons. In my 40 years in the ski industry this will be the toughest season I will ever see in my life.”

If the government is taking advice from the Australian Institute of Sport Reboot Framework outlining social distance and non contact sport risks, then skiing and snowboarding already is in a good position to be considered for a season ahead. Their report states, among other positives, that “international evidence to date is suggestive that outdoor activities are a lower risk setting for COVID-19 transmission.”

The Victorian government announced this week on their website that groups of up to 10 people can now partake in snow sports, so long as the travel to and from that snow sport can be done within a day. The Alpine National Park is also now open and both cross country and backcountry skiing and snowboarding for those with relevant skills is an option. 

Want to guess how the Aussie ski resorts will run this winter?

But what’s ahead for the ski tourism industry and accommodation operators? Ski tourism in New South Wales alone counts for $665 million and employs over 5000 people. That’s a lot of livelihoods at stake. 

“Shared accommodation is going to be an issue, not just in the ski industry, I think there will be separate rules to that but that’s nothing people don’t already know” says Hackworth of lodge set ups and the current government restrictions.

“Accommodation with shared cooking and shared bathrooms, it will be tough to operate that for the foreseeable future.”

Of course that may also change. For now the resorts are also hoping the government will assess gathering numbers to be those gathered at particular points on the mountain, not dissimilar to New Zealand’s approach. If gatherings were capped at 100 or more then those numbers would be monitored at a lift line, an outdoor deck, a ticket window or any point where skiers and snowboarders congregate.

“We would hope that is the government’s take on gatherings, but again, we cannot pre-empt what that will be” said Hackworth who earlier this week revealed to AFR more social distancing measures to include limits on numbers on chairlifts and bring your own gear. 

This was reiterated by Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton in an ABC Radio interview this week who also flagged the group accommodation issue and the need for hire gear to be rigorously cleaned or bring your own. 

As for ensuring local region health authorities are prepared for any spikes should COVID-19  rear it’s ugly head during a ski season. This, too, is obviously being considered.

“Everyone understandably wants economic benefits, but are also frightened of those same economic benefits, as they mean people coming through” says Hackworth of local regions with limited health resources but still in need of tourism support after the bushfires.

“So we’re waiting for government direction as they’re not going to release restrictions until they believe it’s safe.”

This is in keeping with New South Wales Deputy Premier and Member for Monaro John Barilaro’s sentiments in an extended interview with Snowy Mountains Magazine yesterday – “We need to come up with a solution that is in the best interest of locals, while keeping in line with health advice so we don’t put our community at risk. The health and well-being of our community is paramount.”

As for refunds, credits and pass protection for the season that traditionally would start in four weeks time, that’s up to individual resorts.  The Mt Buller season pass, Epic Australia Pass and Thredbo Season Pass already have updated pass protection and terms you can find on their sites. However with 16 days before final payments are required for passes, you can expect some communication soon.

When we asked Hackworth the cut off week or month for opening during this season, that point when it will cost more to run for the shorter time period than to stay closed he, understandably, refused to speculate. 

“Let’s try for a meaningful season together first” said an impassioned Hackworth. “The only truth is what Premiers are saying, everything else is a red herring. It’s only when you hear out of the Premiers mouths that New South Wales and Victoria is open for skiing, that you’ll know.

One thing they haven’t said is there’s no ski season, you have to listen to what they haven’t said as much as what they have.”

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Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of 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.