No snow: Mother Nature's cruel blow

By James Ihaka

Whakapapa staff member Johnny Te Wano is waiting for the snow. Photo / Christine Cornege
Whakapapa staff member Johnny Te Wano is waiting for the snow. Photo / Christine Cornege

Unseasonably warm weather is keeping skiers off the slopes and putting pressure on the multimillion-dollar ski industry at popular tourist destinations around New Zealand.

Weather analysts expect snow to fall soon, but none of the main skifields - including Turoa and Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu in the North Island and Mt Hutt, Coronet Peak and the Remarkables in the South Island - are open.

Three events at the Winter Festival in Queenstown were last night cancelled, and the opening day for the Mt Ruapehu fields has been put back to Saturday week, July 2.

Peak season starts with school holidays in New Zealand on July 16 and Australia next week, so any further delays will cost skifield operators hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ski Areas Association spokesman Miles Davidson said 1.4 million people visited the country's 25 skifields last year. "It's huge for the economy, especially in regions like Canterbury, Southern Lakes and Ruapehu.

"If people aren't travelling to those regions because of snow, then all those business will be affected.

"You're talking accommodation, airlines, rental car companies - the whole industry is affected."

He said the next two weeks would be vital, and to make up for the slow start to the season, skifields would have to stay open without further disruption and rely on getting extra visitors during the Rugby World Cup.

Up to 1000 skifield workers in Queenstown and Wanaka remain in limbo as all fields in the area remain closed because of a lack of snow.

It is thought to be the latest start to winter in 50 years.

Work and Income had received 80 applications for emergency benefits from Coronet Peak staff, and more were expected, the southern regional commissioner for social development, John Allen, said yesterday.

Whakapapa field operations manager Johnny Te Wano said the field had "top-to-bottom skiing" at this time last year.

"There was snow everywhere, which might be hard to believe," said Mr Te Wano as he looked over a landscape of snow-free boulders and rocks.

"I'm quite surprised, especially when we had three or four big days of snowfall here in May."

Mr Te Wano, who has worked at Whakapapa since 1993, saw similar scenes at the mountain in 2008 - which turned into one of the best years.

"I was standing here in a pair of shorts the week we were meant to open, just hoping for snow," he said.

"Not long after, we had a metre of snow in one night and it just carried on snowing after that."

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts general manager Dave Mazey said there was "nothing skiable" at Turoa or Whakapapa.

Staff numbers had swelled in the past couple of days and would continue to grow to about 800 over the next two weeks as workers had their training for the season.

Mr Mazey was not too concerned about the likely delay to the season, despite reports that one ski company had been distributing hundreds of food parcels to help staff cope.

He said snow-making would usually have started about Queen's Birthday weekend, but the weather had been too warm for snow-making machines to operate.

"It's the warmest May and early June that I can recall in the 25 years I have worked here," he said.

"In the context of where we are, it is not critical because most North Islanders don't expect to come skiing at Ruapehu until early July."

Mr Mazey said more than 21,000 season passes had been sold for Whakapapa.

There is hope on the horizon for skifield operators, with forecasts of some snow by the end of the week, courtesy of southwesterly winds predicted by MetService.

Duty forecaster Derek Holland said last night that a light dusting of snow was expected today at Mt Hutt and other South Island skifields.

That was expected to be followed tomorrow and over the weekend by snow showers in the South Island and in the central North Island, down to 1300m above sea level on Mt Ruapehu - about 300m below the Top of the Bruce carpark.

- NZ Herald

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