Mt Ruapehu will be open for skiing and boarding this winter but expects to run at a loss.
Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) chief executive officer Jono Dean said Whakapapa and Tūroa snow fields would be open as there is significant community benefit. The borders are closed and without the international tourists RAL did not expect to make a profit from being open this season.
"Part of the RAL constitution is for the operation to support the local community and this was key to our decision making. We employ 100 people and there are many other businesses dependent on the mountain being open," said Mr Dean.
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Covid-19 disruption to RAL operations is considerable for winter 2020 and Mr Dean outlined the many changes in a letter to shareholders.
On-mountain numbers will be down by a yet-to-be announced percentage. Mr Dean says the inability to do pre-season maintenance due to a lack of staff had the knock-on effect of not all lifts opening. In turn, the maximum daily capacity has been reduced.
"The on-mountain numbers are linked to our DoC licensing and are to do with the health and safety of guests on the maunga," said Mr Dean.
For instance, the current maximum daily capacity for Whakapapa is 5500 people, so this year fewer than 5500 will be allowed on the mountain at any one time. Mr Dean said a system would be put in place to 'make it fair' and to manage the scenario where on blue-bird weekends people would still be driving to the mountain without realising the cut-off point had been reached.
In the letter to shareholders, RAL said they would be encouraging mid-week skiing as much as possible.
"We are looking at changing customer behaviour. We will ask customers, 'what experience do you want on the mountain?" said Mr Dean.
Lifts opening at Whakapapa will be Happy Valley, the Sky Waka and the Knoll T Bar. The Rangatira Express will open on the weekends and on inclement weather days. Later in the season the Valley T-Bar may open. For Tūroa, lifts opening are Movenpick, the Giant, and High Noon. The Parklane and Wintergarden may open later in the season.
"This year we want people to explore the terrain, there will be a lot of free skiing.
"Trails will be groomed for top to bottom skiing, including grooming parts of the Far West snowfield on Whakapapa."
There will be no off-mountain rentals and the cafés will offer a reduced service. The Happy Valley Café and rental will not be open. The ski and board rental facilities on the mountain will be open. Other than the free shuttle from the carparking areas on Whakapapa, Jono said this year RAL will leave all customer transport to private operators. All ticketing will be online and retail and café sales will be by card only.
"Our message is, 'use the local community'. Pick up your skis in town, buy your lunch locally and bring it up here to eat. If the road is restricted, then use a local transport operator."
In 2019 RAL made a $25 million investment in the Sky Waka gondola, with a $10 million loan coming from the Provincial Growth Fund. It is hoped the gondola investment will double tourism income across the North Island to $400 million per year by 2028.
Jono says RAL has worked through the implications of Covid-19 on their financial and operational goals for winter 2020.
"The Sky Waka was funded through bond holders, we have been working alongside them and they have been incredibly supportive of RAL being here for the long term. It's been quite humbling," said Mr Dean.
Adult day pass ticket prices have increased by $20 to $149 and Mr Dean said this price rise was independent of Covid-19 disruption, with ticket prices being locked in on December 1, the start of the financial year for RAL. He said the five day flexi pass offered best value skiing, working out at $85 per day.
First Tracks and Night Skiing are cancelled this year with no guarantee they will be offered in 2021.
Throughout the lockdown Mr Dean said RAL made a conscious effort to retain all permanent and summer staff. In Covid-19 alert level 4, staff accepted working at 60 per cent capacity and over levels 3 and 2 have transitioned back to normal working hours.
"Every staff member made a sacrifice this season to get us open. The staff are passionate ski people and have made a huge contribution to get us in position so we are ready to open."
Mr Dean wanted to thank everyone for all their patience up to this point.
"It's going to be a really different season this year and people are going to have to get ready for this."