Queenstown and Wanaka resorts planning for a 2020 ski season

Photo credit: The Remarkables/Rachel King

New Zealand has been in a restrictive Level 4 lockdown for the past four weeks during the coronavirus crisis and will head into Level 3 from Tuesday.

This is good news for the ski resorts who will now be able to commence maintenance on the resorts in the hope of a 2020 southern season. It will then be revealed if the country will head to a relaxed pandemic shutdown of Level 2 in mid May.

Local businesses in Queenstown are hopeful, as ski resorts will only be able to operate in a Level 2 situation where mass indoor gatherings can be capped at 100 people and gatherings outdoors to be capped at 500 with one metre social distancing. Recreational and leisure sports are allowed and it is assumed that would include skiing and snow boarding. 

However, at Level 2 this would mean only locals can ski and board as non essential domestic travel will be banned. Under Level 1, domestic travel is allowed and therefore the ski resorts could open to domestic skiers and boarders. There is again, hope that come early season the nation will be at the coveted Level 1. 

There is some good news today as Paul Anderson, CEO of NZ Ski, revealed in a Queenstown Chamber industry Zoom event today that contrary to rumours, they do intend to open both The Remarkables and Coronet Peak rather than just one of the two, but it is not yet a given. 

“We’re cautiously optimistic that under Level 2 we’ll be able to open Coronet Peak and
The Remarkables for a local market” said Anderson.

“I don’t need to tell you that running two mountains with the guests at a quarter of a normal year is not the best way to operate. We are continuing to work out how we might be able to make that make sense because we would dearly love to be able to get both mountains available to everyone. What I can say for sure is under Level 2 we will be operating with acres of wide open space for locals to enjoy.”

He also said they are working closely with Doppelmayr to ensure that the new chairlift at The Remarkables will be completed in the eight weeks remaining on that project, and have also been collaborating with other colleagues in the industry to share ideas on how a Level 2 restriction might operate. Self catering and eating in your vehicles picnic style from the boot is one option and more food and beverage sold outdoors is another. 

However both Anderson and Bridget Legnvasky (GM of Cardrona and Treble Cone) are campaigning the government on the 500 cap on mass gatherings with the belief that ski resorts were not considered in the level 2 rules. 

“Our understanding is that level 2 didn’t address the ski industry and our wide areas” said Anderson. “The suggestions we have made is that restriction should be for queues, learner areas, decks, but it is safe to have more than 500 people spread out over 3-400 hectares of a resort.”

Cardrona and Treble Cone resorts are also both being prepped during Level 3 for a hopeful opening of both, Cardrona on June 27 and Treble Cone on June 28. Legnvasky agreed and believes resorts need to be considered the way a small town is considered and the social restrictions that would apply.

“We are 100% dedicated and committed to getting both resorts ready to open. We do think we’re going to have about 25% of our normal business at level 2” said Legnvasky.

“So we have to be very conscious of our costs around delivery. We’re not 100% sure on what that looks like, whether we open 1, 2 (resorts) or part of each (resort) isn’t planned yet but we are looking at all.”

All the main South Island commercial resorts intend to open in late June with cashless operations and obviously social distancing measures. This would no doubt mean less skiers and boarders on chairlifts with an amended seating system. Mt Hutt is prepping as per normal, though with reduced international staff, as 90 percent of their visitation is domestic anyway.

However around 40 to 50 percent of the visitation to the Wanaka and Queenstown ski fields is international during winter, mainly from Australia. Without a Trans Tasman “bubble” (the Kiwi term for your isolation pod) and reduced skier numbers allowed on each resort in Level 2, there will no doubt be a huge financial blow to the resorts.

Hope is for first a Level 1 status and second an Australia/New Zealand opening in time for spring skiing. Both nation’s leaders have flagged the idea of potentially opening borders to each other at some stage in the future. 

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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.