New Zealand ski resorts get government go ahead to operate

Photo credit: Coronet Peak

The ski areas of New Zealand are breathing a sigh of relief this afternoon after the nation’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, outlined what will happen when the country goes from their current Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 2 pandemic restrictions.

And it’s good news. Ski resorts will be open for business.

Despite mass gatherings being limited to 100 people, these restrictions will have a different set of circumstances or criteria for larger outdoor areas such as golf courses and ski resorts. Domestic travel will also be permissible in Alert Level 2, formerly it had been thought this would only be capable in Level 1. 

The country will not know until Monday, May 11 when Alert Level 2 will be allowed, though it is expected to be mid to late week with 48 hours notice before the level changes. Until then resorts are remaining cautious with announcing exact details on how they will run and what the 2020 season will specifically look like.

Both NZ Ski CEO Paul Anderson and Cardrona Treble Cone GM Bridget Legnavsky revealed different options they had been considering during a recent industry Zoom webinar. However, one thing we do know, is the much lauded trans Tasman bubble will not be open in time for the beginning of this season but there remains hope for potential mid to late season lifting of borders. 

“I think there’s a whole lot of hope” said an upbeat Legnavsky to SnowsBest this afternoon.

“If the graphs keep going in the right direction and as long as New Zealand and Australia are aligned with results and management, then there is always hope.”

New Zealand’s resorts have been successfully working together to lobby the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to address critical needs to ensure an operating season. The MBIE are advisors to the Ministry of Health who ultimately make and advise on decisions with the Prime Minister regarding the current pandemic alert levels. 

The most pressing need was to ensure the mass gathering restrictions were amended specific to ski resorts with many hundreds of hectares. The initial gathering restriction for Level 2 was 500 but that has today been amended by the New Zealand Prime Minister to 100.

Theoretically resorts could safely operate without ever having 500 people gathering on a mountain at any one check point (decks, ski school, lift lines etc), and now protocols will need to be put in place to make that 100 people per check point instead. How many people collectively allowed on the mountain per day is yet to be decided.

Together the resorts developed some Alert Level 2 safe operating protocols for industry” explained Anderson to SnowsBest of the industry committee of three representatives – Legnvasky, Anderson and Mt Ruapehu CEO Jono Dean. 

“The main differentiation on mass gatherings is that the size of all the ski resorts in New Zealand is twice the size of Wellington CBD so there’s plenty of space. We’ve also already got ticketing systems that can provide tracing which helps.”

Winter Tourism is the mainstay of both Queenstown and Wanaka and the potential of no ski season in 2020 would have decimated further an already wounded tourism industry with thousands of job losses. 

“Opening in 2020 will be great not just for our resorts but for the whole community. People have been nervous about not having work, not having people in their accommodation” explained Legnavsky. 

“As an industry we’ve worked really well together to show the ski industry is integral to New Zealand. There’s a lot of responsibility in making our season in 2020 safe and getting our towns back up and running and doing something that we know people value, which is being in the outdoors, in nature, with their families.”

All New Zealand resorts will now be working hard on options for opening and working with government officials to be really clear on how they operate including social distance restrictions and more.

“We have to demonstrate that we are responsible operators, there is a lot of trust in us by allowing us to open, so we want to blow them away with how well managed the resorts are,” said Anderson.

The big questions are will The Remarkables new chairlift be finished in time and will all four Southern Lakes resorts be open (Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, Cardrona, Treble Cone) or just a couple.

Anderson revealed that they are waiting on a rope splicer from Doppelmayer to arrive in the country from either Australia or Europe. This would mean a two week quarantine before the splicer can work on the chairlift and NZ Ski are not the only resorts waiting for Doppelmayer maintenance. But he’s confident it can all be done.

“If you look at it purely commercially we could operate with one mountain but that’s not all we’re about” said Anderson of potentially opening both Coronet and Remarks.

“We love getting people up there, we want to open as much as we can, especially for season pass holders but we’ve got to do that sensibly for our business and within safe operating.”

Legnavsky is buoyed that the season will no longer be a small one, just for locals, but open to the larger domestic market which means, with closed borders, around fifty percent of normal offerings.

As for opening both Cardrona and Treble Cone it may be that both open in July but not every day.

“We still have to understand the size of the market, safety sensitivity, price schedules, people wanting to support tourism” said Legnavsky of the 2020 season ahead. 

Time will reveal all.

Come Monday the resorts will know more about operating specifics and resort restrictions and we’ll update SnowsBest.com with relevant information.

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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.