Plans are in motion to build a gondola on the southern snow slopes of Mt Ruapehu at Tūroa.
Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) general manager Jono Dean says the $54 million investment phase is complete for Whakapapa ski area on the northern slopes of the mountain.
"It's Tūroa's turn for investment now."
The development plans for Tūroa are on the RAL website, for public consultation and feature a $25 million Movenpick Gondola to replace the Movenpick and Parklane chairlifts. Jono says the nature of business is changing for RAL and in spite of the weather is optimistic about this year's revenue.
"The upper mountain missed the school holidays. We had back-to-back rain for four to five weeks. It's unheard of."
In the past this would have spelled financial loss for RAL who historically have been heavily dependent on school holiday trade. This year, Jono says tourists will fill the gap in revenue with adult gondola riders paying $49 for a one-time ride to the Knoll Ridge Cafe on the upper mountain.
"In this first year, we are expecting 60,000 gondola-enticed visitors over the summer period, December to May."
Jono says total predicted summer visitor numbers for this first summer are double that, at 120,000 visitors and full-year visitor numbers to Whakapapa alone are forecast at 700,000 visitors.
"It's too early to say if RAL will turn a profit this year. But the gondola provides a lot of promise for the future," says Jono.
Jono says skiers have the mistaken perception that the tourists are international visitors.
"They are people from all walks of life. They are settled new New Zealanders. They are families whose children have come up here on a ski trip."
RAL research shows the gondola-riding tourists come to Whakapapa for many reasons.
"Their interest is not just the snow. It's also about the cultural and environmental significance of Mt Ruapehu."
Plans are afoot for a snow play area outside the Knoll Ridge Cafe, so tourists can touch the snow and take photos.
Jono says skiers and snowboarders arrive with the expectation they can click into their skis and away they go.
"Unfortunately on bluebird days we have vast numbers of people turning up."
RAL may hold the concession, but the Conservation Department controls the Bruce Rd. Jono acknowledges accessing the mountain this season has been testing for skiers, snowboarders, and tourists. All-day parking is currently being developed at the Chateau and there are 1600 free car parks on Whakapapa with a shuttle service operating from National Park and Whakapapa Village.
"For next year, we are working closely with DoC to manage visitation effectively."
From a snow sports perspective, the over-crowding on bluebird days over both Tūroa and Whakapapa, was made worse by three upper mountain lifts not opening. Jono says that when all lifts are operating, the skifields do have the capacity.
"On Whakapapa, the Sky Waka [gondola] uploads 2400 people per hour. The three T-bars combined upload 2400 people per hour and the West Ridge Chair uploads 3900 per hour."
The next challenge for Mt Ruapehu and the wider region is to maintain the momentum of infrastructure investment, with Taupō district mayor David Trewavas reporting the gondola has just paid its first bond holder dividend of $7561.64 to Taupo District Council.
"We hope investors will see the benefits of long term investment to the region," says Jono.
He says RAL have made a strong commitment to snow sports within Tongariro National Park and talks about facilitating skinning on the upper mountain and encouraging summer walkers.
"We could probably spend another $100 million up here [at Whakapapa] replacing T-bars and chairlifts, they are 20 to 30 years old. We may go back [to investors] for more money. All options are on the table."
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• Mass queues at Mt Ruapehu ski resorts on first day of Spring