As the sweltering summer heat persists in the Northern Hemisphere, the unknowns associated with the upcoming 2020 ski season persist with it. Below the equator, it’s mid-winter, and ski resorts in New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Argentina are struggling to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Australia and New Zealand, ski season has commenced with special protocols put in place to ensure the safety and well-being of guests, while skiers in South America continue holding out hope that a ski season can be salvaged. The Southern Hemisphere ski resorts are, in a sense, the guinea pigs for the inevitable experiment that will be the 2020 ski season in the northern half of the globe.
New Zealand has had tremendous success in handling the pandemic, and moved to Level 1 of its four-level alert system on June 8, meaning residents can return to work, school, sports, and domestic travel without restrictions. On March 25, New Zealand was at Level 4 and entered a nationwide lockdown which helped curb the spread of the virus.
With restrictions lifted, many resorts in New Zealand opened at the end of June, without COVID-19 specific social distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols required. However, because of international travel restrictions still in place, specifically from Australia, many resorts are predicting a large decrease in visitors this season, which has also resulted in staffing cuts.
“At [Coronet Peak] in Queenstown, we are expecting about 50 percent of our usual visitor numbers. In Queenstown, 40 percent of our visitors are international, primarily Australian, and due to travel restrictions they won’t be making it to our resorts this year,” says Libby Baron, communications manager for Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, and Mount Hutt.
The majority of Mount Hutt’s guests, though, are domestic, and so the ski area is projecting 80 to 90-percent of normal visitation, while The Remarkables will operate on weekends only except for holiday periods, based on a prediction of 50-percent of its normal visitation.
“We made this decision based on operating in a domestic-only market,” says Baron. “We needed to make sure our business was sustainable in this new market. If we see numbers during the season that warrant it we can scale up to operate more days.”
Jen Houltham, communications executive at Treble Cone and Cardrona, cites an impending recession, both in New Zealand and globally, as another factor in projecting half the normal visitors this season. However, during the school holidays during the first two weeks of July, Houltham says the local population has almost made up for the lack of international tourism.
“New Zealand has come out and supported the local ski areas and that’s been huge. They’ve really almost made up the numbers that we’ve lost from not having Australians here,” says Houltham. “After the holidays it’ll be interesting to see what happens. And you know, we won’t really know until it gets here, but it’s been really promising and quite humbling to see all of these Kiwis turning out for their local tourism industry.”
While COVID-19-specific restrictions aren’t mandatory in the Level 1 alert, back in March New Zealand resorts came together to formulate a plan to operate under Level 2 which was proposed to, and accepted by, the national government. The plan includes social distancing at the base as well as implementing recommendations for lodging and dining by the country’s Ministry of Health.
“We recognize that it’s a massive privilege that we’ve been given to be able to operate this winter,” adds Houltham. “Six weeks ago, we didn’t know if we were even going to have a ski season. The good thing is that we have that plan in place now, so should things change, we’re alright.”
In an effort to open this season, Australian resorts lobbied the government, presenting a COVID Safe Operating Plan, which “included capacity restraints of up to 50 percent on usual capacity, and all guests must have pre-purchased their passes online before arrival,” according to Caroline Brauer, brand and marketing director at Thredbo, located in New South Wales. Resorts began operating in late June, but a record high of 191 new coronavirus cases hit the Australian state of Victoria on July 7, prompting Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews to revert to stage three restrictions, similar to stay-at-home orders issued in the United States this spring, for six weeks. In response, Vail Resorts, operator of Hotham and Falls Creek in Victoria, announced that it would suspend operations at the two resorts.
Vail Resorts’ Senior Vice President for Australia, Pete Brulisauer, stated in an internal email sent to Australian staffers that the decision to suspend operations stemmed from the issuance of stay-at-home orders for Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, restricted access to the state of New South Wales for anyone who has been in any part of Victoria, and the “safe at home” recommendation to the rest of Victoria, outside of Melbourne and Mitchell Shire. While there is no stay-at-home order for Hotham or Falls Creek, Vail believed, “it’s important for us to be out front of the situation from a safety perspective, especially considering how quickly things just moved in Melbourne.” Hotham and Falls Creek already had guests from Melbourne and Mitchell Shire on its properties when Victoria entered Stage 3, representing a risk for future localized cases, and remaining operational meant bringing people together from across Victoria, which went against best safety practices.
“We cannot say for certain that this will turn out to be the right decision. But we believe being extra careful about safety is both the right health decision for our employees, guests, and communities, and also the right long-term decision for our business,” described Brulisauer in the email. “Toward that end, I have heard concerns that we made this decision purely for financial reasons. There is no doubt that the Stay at Home orders in Melbourne would have drastically reduced guests to the resorts but, it still might have been possible to remain profitable at a smaller scale. However, that was not how this decision was made. When we voluntarily closed our resorts in North America, it came at a massive financial cost to the Company, one which we accepted because we believed it was the right decision. The same is true here.”
In New South Wales, however, resorts have continued to operate under the COVID Safe Operating Plan. Thredbo originally projected the amount of terrain it would routinely have open throughout the winter and made a conservative number of lift passes available for each day based on that. Season pass sales exceeded those numbers, so the resort decided to offer pass holders a refund and offer them drastically reduced day pass rates, to adhere to the limited operating capacity approved by the government. The first batch of passes sold out in 48 hours, indicating a huge demand for skiing by the local population.
“As we’ve had more terrain opening up over the past week, we’ve been able to release more passes to market and these have also sold through really nicely,” says Brauer. “The benefit of our model is that we can ramp up, or scale back, as restrictions change and we’re confident this will put us in a solid position for the remainder of the winter given the current situation.”
All guests accessing the mountain also have their profiles recorded to assist Australia’s Department of Health with contact tracing should an outbreak occur. It’s very much a cooperation between government and resorts in Australia.
The 2020 season outlook is bleak for Chile. The Associacion de Centros de Ski de Chile (ACESKI), which represents 12 Chilean ski resorts, developed protocols for operation during the pandemic including operating at 50-percent capacity, distancing in the lines, one skier per chairlift, and increased sanitation practices, which were presented to the Chilean government in May, but are still under review. While ski areas hoped to open by late July, on June 22, Ski Portillo announced that its ski season was postponed indefinitely.
What’s even harder to swallow is on the heels of a particularly dry winter in 2019, the mountains around Santiago and Los Andes have, “had our best season in 15 years with more than 15 feet of snow year-to-date,” according to Maureen Poschman, marketing manager for Ski Portillo. Chile’s borders are currently closed, with a government-issued state of emergency in place through September 14, meaning the Chilean ski season is all but canceled for international tourists. While Portillo and other resorts in Chile are holding out hope to allow for local skiing in 2020, the outlook is still completely up in the air and quickly slipping towards unsalvageable.
“[The government] has not given any indication at this point of whether they would allow Portillo to open,” says Poschman. “At this point, Santiago and the Los Andes regions are both in quarantine. People cannot leave their homes except with permission, and they cannot travel between regions. Clearly, losing an entire season is devastating, but Portillo is looking forward to the 2021 season.”
Poschman added that many guests have been transferring 2020 reservations to next year, or simply booking their trip for 2021 in anticipation of a canceled season this year.
On May 20, Las Leñas, one of Argentina’s premier resorts, announced it would not open for the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing reasons out of its control and the ski area’s high-risk location that put tourists and employees in harm’s way. La Hoya has also canceled its 2020 season.
Renata Bellini was gearing up for her ninth season ski instructing at Las Leñas when she found out about the resort closure.
“Finding out that Las Leñas was not going to open this season was really sad and a bit shocking, especially because they made the decision on May 20… for me, that was a bit soon, even with the pandemic situation.”
While Las Leñas has remained steadfast in its decision to remain closed, Bellini, who is still living at the resort, has heard from fellow residents that Cerro Catedral, found further south, is planning for an August 1 opening. Patagonian newspaper Rio Negro reported on July 13 that Bariloche Mayor Gustavo Gennuso gave indications that Catedral could open as soon as July 17, depending on current COVID-19 infections. Bariloche Chief of Staff, Marcos Barberis, stated, “There was a meeting yesterday for Catedral, another today with the shopping merchants (of the hill) and on Monday there will be another one,” and also stated that expectations for opening the resort are very high, and opening will be determined by both the municipality and province.
International and domestic flights are grounded through September 1 in Argentina, and while many ski resorts are optimistic about opening for the season, ski area traffic will be limited to locals, rather than tourists.
On July 13, Cerro Castor, located at the southern tip of Argentina, announced, via Winter Channel, an Argentinian winter sports media company, that it would open on August 1 for domestic tourism only.
“All the ski centers in Argentina know that they are totally at a loss and that a social function is being fulfilled for the local people,” said Juan Carlos Begué, concessionaire of Cerro Castor.
In its early stretches, the Southern Hemisphere ski season tells two drastically different stories that show signs of how things could go in the United States and Canada. Optimists will look to the success had in New Zealand, specifically, while others fear the struggles had in South America will occur in North America. What is clear, is that the success of the ski season will largely hinge upon the success individual states and counties have in limiting the impact of the pandemic.
This article originally appeared on Powder.com and was republished permission.
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