It's 'just brilliant' - planeloads hit slopes

First on the new Curvey Basin chairlift at the Remarkables ski area yesterday are (from left)...
First on the new Curvey Basin chairlift at the Remarkables ski area yesterday are (from left) Brian Rohland, Harry Burden, Brad Markey, Zach Thomas, Morgan Harteveld and Jack Grizzo. Photos by Guy Williams.
The Remarkables ski area's new six-seater, 1.2km Curvey Basin chairlift began operating at 9.30am...
The Remarkables ski area's new six-seater, 1.2km Curvey Basin chairlift began operating at 9.30am yesterday. The 200 people waiting in line to get on were offered celebratory bubbly by ski area staff. Photos by Guy Williams.

The Australians are coming to Queenstown by the planeload - it must be winter.

About 7000 people will pass through the resort's airport today, with nearly half that number international visitors crossing the Tasman to hit the region's skifields.

A southerly change on Monday has brought badly needed natural snow and cooler temperatures for snow-making, with the Remarkables opening yesterday - 12 days later than scheduled - to join Coronet Peak, which opened on June 7.

About 1800 skiers and snowboarders headed up to the Remarkables for its opening day yesterday, with about 200 waiting in line when its new six-seater, 1.2km Curvey Basin chairlift began operating at 9.30am.

Ski area manager Ross Lawrence said about 30cm had fallen on the field from Monday afternoon until yesterday morning and, with temperatures plummeting, snow machines had been running non-stop.

More snow was expected today before the weather cleared for the weekend and the expected influx of local school holiday-makers.

''Winter picks the time, but to be up and running now is just brilliant.''

At the Curvey Basin chairlift loading station, six snowboarders claimed their spots at the front of the queue to ensure their place in history and a ''First On the Chair'' T-shirt.

One of them, Australian Brad Markey, camped out in his car from 6pm on Wednesday.

The new chairlift was part of a $45 million redevelopment during the off-season that included a 20% expansion of the learners' area, 1.6km of new trails and a doubling of the number of snow guns.

Queenstown Airport spokeswoman Jen Andrews said the beginning of the Australian school holidays had ushered in the airport's busiest period of the winter.

Transtasman flights from mid-June until September were expected to be up 25% on last winter, with a record 50 direct transtasman flights arriving each week on average - up 10 a week on last year.

While domestic flights into Queenstown were on a par with previous years, the number of international flights was ''ramping up every year'', she said.

Destination Queenstown chief executive Graham Budd said this week's cold snap had come just in time.

While the Queenstown Winter Festival kicked off the season, the school holidays were ''another step up''.

The next two or three weeks would be the busiest time of the winter, with July and August equalling January and February for visitor numbers, Mr Budd said.

Australian visitors typically spent between seven and 14 days in Queenstown during winter, and spent more each day than any other nationality.

Craig Douglas, general manager sales and marketing of the Remarkables and Coronet Peak owner NZSki, said about 60% of the visitors to the two ski areas this week were Australians.

That percentage would drop off slightly once the New Zealand school holidays began today, but Australian visitors made up just over half the number of visitors to the two ski areas throughout the season.

Contrary to custom, it has been skifields in Australia rather than New Zealand that have had the best early season snow.

Places like Smiggin Holes, Blue Cow, Mt Hotham and Perisher have been revelling in falls of up to 1.4m.

The owner of Wanaka ski rental shop Racers Edge, Steve Schikker, said Australian skiers and snowboarders flying home today would have smiles on their faces after a ''pleasant surprise''.

In contrast to New Zealand, which had experienced a ''soft opening'', with rain, warm temperatures and a dearth of snow, Australian ski areas were labelling their good luck ''snowmageddon''.

Many Australians who had booked skiing holidays to New Zealand were questioning their decision.

''They were going: `I think we are in the wrong country','' Mr Schikker said yesterday.

However, the Cardrona Ski Resort's limited opening a week ago appeared to have helped save the day for Queensland families who chose the New Zealand option for the first week of their holidays.

''I haven't had anybody who has come to the shop who has been disappointed,'' Mr Schikker said remarked yesterday.

Wanaka Tourism general manager James Helmore said there could be a positive spin-off for New Zealand ski areas later in the season from Australians who had skied at home and were thinking to themselves: ''What's next?''This season had had a more typical opening after a couple of years when big, early snowfalls had ''coloured people's perspectives'' of what was usual.

However, it was ''fairly fortunate'' snow came this week ahead of the school holidays when skifields made the bulk of their money to carry them through the rest of the season.

About 100 skiers enjoyed the opening for the season of Ohau Snowfields yesterday.

Up to 27 snowguns had been operating since 3am on Tuesday, with levels boosted by fresh snow on Wednesday - 10cm of snow on the upper mountain and 4cm lower down, lifting the base to 40cm and 18cm respectively.

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