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The peaks glisten white, somewhere beneath a blanket of clinging June cloud. It is as it has always been for this time of year but for Queenstown and Wanaka, so much of this ski season will be uncomfortably different.
The resort towns rely heavily on their skifields. They provide the visitors who rent the rooms, who buy the meals and who indulge in the passions and pastimes that keep their businesses and communities humming.
Previously, winter weather forecasts, predicted snow levels and the ever-improving depth of the skifields’ snow base suggested how busy the Lakes District might get. Regular updates set the scene for busy weekends.
Every year, it seemed the increasingly-popular skifields set new records; the volume, variety and spending of the visitors they brought into the region almost always established new benchmarks for the following years.
It was supposed to be so this year, too. The Australian and Chinese markets, especially, were growing on the back of strong economies and cheap airfares. New Zealanders continued to visit in greater numbers than before.
Strong marketing and — especially — significant investment played key roles in ensuring the district’s skifields continued to be among the most attractive tourism attractions in the South Pacific. It was set to be a busy year.
The global pandemic put pay to that. In one fell swoop over a remarkable few days in March, our borders closed and international tourism hit the wall. As the months passed, recovery seemed increasingly out of reach.
The skifields and, especially, the communities that support them have hoped-beyond-hope since at least April that the international scene would improve enough to allow at least some ski-related tourism to return.
The trans-Tasman bubble was promoted regularly and earnestly until it became clear the Prime Minister’s early confidence Australian tourists would return in time for ski season would be undermined by new cases of Covid-19.
As those Australian cases multiply, many more of us now understand how difficult it will be to establish and maintain a bubble in a world where the chance of avoiding the pandemic is only as good as the last breach.
The fragility of such a bubble has been clear for a while, certainly long enough for skifield and other tourism operators to fix their sights firmly on the previously growing domestic market that has always supported them.
They and their regional tourism bodies are undertaking positive domestic marketing campaigns and, across the tourism landscape, prices have been adjusted to encourage still-more New Zealanders to visit them.
The early signs are that this is working, even-as businesses and consumers alike worry about how they will make and spend their money over the next few, uncertain months while the pandemic worsens overseas.
It was heartening to learn the likes of Cardrona Snow Farm on Saturday enjoyed what might have been the biggest opening day in the cross-country skifield’s 31-year history. That manager Sam Lee reckoned local support was so great it made it feel like the Covid-19 lockdown never happened was, frankly, remarkable.
Remarkable, too, is news Lake Wanaka Tourism’s winter ski campaign website has had more than a million hits since it launched a month ago. Traffic from Auckland — that other, Australia-esque source of tourists — was up 1500%.
A slew of skifields open from today and, no matter the early flurry of activity, all will be acutely aware that it is still too early to predict how a season already unlike any other will play out.
Some are operating with about half the number of staff they might usually have and all rely upon the support of just one market, influenced by the confidence and fortunes of just one national economy.
The sector has little choice but to put all its eggs in one basket, just as the communities surrounding them have no choice but to ‘‘pivot’’ to attract and serve domestic tourists as the country rides out the Covid-19 storm.
They have a ready market in the Southerners who have consistently used and supported their product for decades. The need for leisure, adventure and time with family and friends is as it was before the pandemic.
School holidays will soon be upon us. They will be a new chance for families to play and reconnect outside lockdown, and a new chance for our resort towns to make up, at least in part, for lost time.