Ski event included in international series

Merino Muster Ltd chairman John Burridge (left) nand Snow Farm founders John and Mary Lee at the Worldloppet Ski Federation signing ceremony in Italy last weekend. Photo supplied.
Merino Muster Ltd chairman John Burridge (left) nand Snow Farm founders John and Mary Lee at the Worldloppet Ski Federation signing ceremony in Italy last weekend. Photo supplied.
The inclusion of Snow Farm's Merino Muster cross-country ski event in a major international race series is expected to boost the number of big-spending overseas visitors to the Queenstown Lakes district.

The Merino Muster was formally accepted as an associate member of the Worldloppet Ski Federation of cross-country skiing marathons at the sporting organisation's annual meeting in Italy last weekend.

Only the best race from a country can be a member of Worldloppet, which attracts 135,000 participants each year.

New Zealand's Merino Muster race - which has received Queenstown Lakes District Council events funding - had a Worldloppet inspection last year and will have official Worldloppet status when it celebrates its 20th anniversary this August.

Run by Merino Muster Ltd (MML), a wholly owned subsidiary of Snow Farm manager the Pisa Alpine Charitable Trust (Pact), the race has a strong local following and attracts a handful of overseas competitors each year.

However, Pact trustee Peter Soundy, of Arrowtown, said the international exposure gained through Worldloppet membership would result in a ''significant increase'' in overseas entrants, particularly from European countries.

That would be a boost not just for Snow Farm, but for the wider district.

''At the moment, most of our international visitors to Snow Farm are semiprofessional or fulltime athletes, but this is another category of visitors who'll be going to spend a lot more time in the district and spending a lot more money, and helping us in a way to support the Snow Farm operations as well.''

The Merino Muster's arrival on the Worldloppet circuit has been a long-held vision of Snow Farm founder John Lee and is the culmination of years of work by his wife Mary and MML chairman and Pact trustee John Burridge.

The trio formed the New Zealand delegation which travelled to Riva del Garda, Italy, to present their case for acceptance, earning unanimous approval from all 16 countries in the federation.

As an appreciation of her work for the race throughout its 20-year history, Mrs Lee was nominated by Pact as the official signatory for the acceptance ceremony, which was covered by European television networks.

In an email from Italy this week, she said it had been an ''incredible journey'' achieving Worldloppet sanctioning.

''This is a wonderful family of races ... It's about more than skiing, it's about uniting the world with skiing.''

Earlier this year, Mr Burridge said each of the Worldloppet races had its own unique story and Snow Farm's history as a retired merino farm was ''very attractive'' to the European entrants especially.

''We know a number of the Worldloppet masters who have skied all the existing races have been agitating for our inclusion over several years.''

Three other races in Argentina, China and Iceland were also accepted into Worldloppet, meaning a new southern hemisphere series will take place this year, which will include the Merino Muster and the long-established Kangaroo Hoppet in Australia.