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Inter-regional travel bans could prevent ski fields from opening

Skiers and snowboarders should brace themselves for a different snow season with fewer lifts operating, less lessons and a later opening date all likely this year – if the mountains are even able to open.

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, which runs the Turoa and Whakapapa skifields, remains in limbo while it, along with other tourism groups including Ski Area Association of NZ and Tourism Industry Aotearoa, seeks clarification around whether it could operate under level 2 restrictions which currently prohibit inter-regional travel and mass group gatherings.

Social distancing will have to be encouraged during this year‘s season on Mt Ruapehu. Photo / Alan Gibson

RAL chief executive Jono Dean said he was confident the skifields could operate safely under level 2 if inter-regional travel restrictions were lifted.

About 85 per cent of RAL‘s customers were from within New Zealand and a large number of those were season pass holders who had already purchased this year‘s passes and were anxiously waiting to hear whether they would be able to hit the snow.

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“There‘s no doubt that recreation can be resumed at level 2 and that‘s the advice we‘ve worked under. So we would see the ski areas fitting into that criteria and being able to operate under alert level 2.

“However there may be a broader requirement we may need to look at which is how we manage mass gatherings and what that means for our mountain environment.”

With Whakapapa skifield spread over 550ha and Turoa ski area spanning 500ha – it was possible 2m social distancing rules could be enforced.

Workers returned to Ruapehu at the end of April as the fields are readied for the 2020 season, like the upgrade of the Giant chairlift on Turoa (pictured). Photo / MtRuapehu

Dean had been looking at a range of scenarios to ensure there would be adequate distancing for people in the plaza areas, lift queues and on the chair lifts.

“In terms of the overall breadth of the mountain we are able to use, the breadth of the lifts we are able to use – some are more practical than others. For instance on a double chairlift it makes it very hard to socially distance people and requires people to ride a chair lift by themselves as an example.”

They had also considered family-only bubbles being able to sit together on chair lifts.

RAL already had the technology in place to meet tracing requirements through its RFID ski passes which enabled them to track when people arrived, where they were and when they left.

Meanwhile staffing was another issues and border closures also meant that 55 per cent of the staff that they usually employed from overseas including ski instructions could not enter the country leaving large gaps in some of its skill sets such as lessons.

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While RAL would look to fill other roles such as customer service roles locally or regionally when it knew how many people it needed.

Sean and Josh dig out The Valley drinking weir on Whakapapa after the alert level 4 was lifted. Photo / MtRuapehu

Between 600 to 700 were usually employed over both areas, but Dean expected this year‘s operating model to require much less.

“I think that it‘s important that we have a customer base that understands the challenges we are going through and that we are pushing really really strongly for an operation but of course we need to follow public health guidelines to keep everyone safe while they are on the mountain.”

While the season usually started at the beginning of June and was also highly dependent on snowfall – this year‘s opening was expected to be pushed back as they waited for clarification around the alert levels.

Last week 35 workers returned to the mountain to carry out maintenance work and make finishing touches to the facilities in preparation for opening.

Earlier RAL chairman Murray Gribben said not being able to open this winter would mean a loss and an increase in debt for RAL that was unacceptably high for both the organisation and the bank.

Dean said the comment was made while the country was still in lockdown and RAL was working closely with its bank and they were all now waiting on clarification around level 2 to find out whether it would be possible to open.

It was also too early to say whether just one of the two ski areas might open, he said.

RAL season pass holders will have their passes transferred to the 2021 season if the mountain does not open this year.

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