Should South spread ski offerings?

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
Queenstown visitor growth has been in the news again recently, as it constantly has been over the last decade.

While it once only bulged during high seasons, Queenstown is now a small city sprawling, choking and struggling to house its desperately needed staff. And with the region's skifields opening, the next onslaught of visitors is imminent.

While the "but what to do?" question involves myriad theories and few solid answers, one glaring fact is the bulk of the South's tourism investment has happened within striking distance of Queenstown. Of course the tourists descend on Queenstown - it's where the attractions are.

This is starkly seen with the South's skifields. While southerners know snow falls in hefty quantities on peaks and ranges around the region, it seems there is no appetite for ski infrastructure investment if the area in question is too far from Camp St.

Surely, the wider region - Queenstown, too - would benefit from more attractions being offered further afield. The lakes, rivers, canyons and ski resorts so synonymous with Queenstown could, in one form or another, be found all over the South.

The reality, of course, is that investment is done to facilitate profit. That begs the question: what makes profit more likely than loss? Certainty is a key factor in that equation, and certainty is not something easily delivered in this part of the world.

This season alone, two skifields have had to postpone massive infrastructure upgrades as they negotiate environmental concerns. We often have a tip-toe approach to development in New Zealand and while that has its good points, it can cause development to drag well behind demand.

Certainty of snowfall is another concern. Many of the lower alpine areas around the South - those around Middlemarch, Central Otago, Southland's Takitimus and more - simply can't guarantee all-winter snow. Even the St Mary's Range, with its higher elevation and established Awakino club field, can suffer sporadic snowfall.

But with the climate warming and artificial snow production becoming an ever-more essential aspect of ski resorts, is guaranteed natural snow the only consideration these days?

What about the ease of access to an international airport and the close proximity to Dunedin the Rock and Pillars offer? While downhill skiing might not work there, cross-country skiing could. With investment, could Lake Ohau village and skifield become a genuine alternative to the Wakatipu and Wanaka fields?

But instead of development, vast areas of our region are sparsely populated and relatively unproductive, despite potentially sitting on the proverbial goldmine that is South Island ski tourism.

In the next few hundred years, it may be that many of the South's alpine areas develop to offer skiing or other alpine activities. It may be many paddocks of today become villages, towns, even resorts in the future.

It may be Queenstown retains its place as the pinnacle of New Zealand tourism, but does so by offering the highest quality experiences to a limited number of visitors.

For that future, we would need to reformulate how we value our alpine areas. Are we comfortable seeing some of them change? Development would bring gondolas and roads to the wilderness. It would alter pristine environments. It may also, ironically, mean more and stronger protection and recognition of some areas, to ensure the development of others doesn't remove alpine wilderness completely.

If that is where we want to reach - and that is certainly up for debate - will we have to accept it is currently too risky for investors to put down the money required to get that ball rolling?

It could be reducing some of that risk is the pill we have to swallow to spread the golden goose that is tourism, especially winter tourism, further around the South.


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