Australia's 2020 ski season will go ahead, but in what capacity?

Tom Evans from Wildbrumby Distillery near Thredbo. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Tom Evans from Wildbrumby Distillery near Thredbo. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

It's simple enough to say the Australian ski season will go ahead but the logistics of making that happen are proving much more difficult.

Despite the challenges, there is quiet optimism in the Snowy Mountains.

On Wednesday, the NSW Premier and Deputy Premier announced regional travel would be allowed from June 1.

"I'm very pleased to share that this means we will have a ski season this year. However holidaymakers should be aware that ski resorts will likely need time to put COVID plans into place and you should make contact before visiting," Mr Barilaro's statement said.

While the ski season will not start on the June long weekend as planned, there are plans in place for a season of some sort with a July 1 start date being bandied about.

It was welcome news for many of the businesses, lodges and accommodation providers at Thredbo and Perisher.

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Guthega Inn owner Nick Kennedy spent the summer renovating the lodge.

"We had the cladding off the windows out when we were evacuated for the bushfires which was a bit alarming," Mr Kennedy said.

"But that's all finished now and the place is stiff, quiet and thermally enhanced."

At this time of year, the Guthega Inn would be hiring staff and preparing for their first guests on the June long weekend.

But this season will be very different to the ones before. Guthega is a ski in, ski out lodge with a lift that connects it to the Perisher. Mr Kennedy is unsure of whether the lift connections will be running, but said he's prepared to ship guests to and from Perisher if needs be.

The Guthega Inn will operate at 50 per cent of their normal capacity to try to reduce the risk to their guests and staff.

Skiers hitting the slopes at Perisher's Sundeck Hotel. Picture: Supplied

Skiers hitting the slopes at Perisher's Sundeck Hotel. Picture: Supplied

Cliff Wallis is also planning to operate at 50 per cent capacity but is frustrated by the lack of information being shared by Perisher resort.

Mr Wallis has owned the Sundeck at Perisher for 30 years.

"We can't plan anything much until we know if we're going to be able to open," Mr Wallis said.

"We're really in the hands of the government and health people and the resort. Perisher is planning to open in some capacity but nobody knows what that is at this stage."

"It's quite possible they might turn around and say it's not worth opening."

Mr Wallis said there are so many unanswered questions, like whether the ski tube will run, if there will be a quota for how many people can be on the mountain, and how they will run the lifts in line with social distancing practices. He expects to know more by mid-June.

The Man from Snowy River is Perisher's largest hotel and they will also be operating at about 50 per cent capacity if and when the ski fields open.

Outside the Man From Snowy River Hotel at Perisher. Picture: Supplied

Outside the Man From Snowy River Hotel at Perisher. Picture: Supplied

General manager Jen Mooney is up to her 50th version of her COVID-safe plan for reopening. She's exaggerating of course, but she's working hard to ensure everything is ready when Perisher gets approval to open.

"I'm planning for a June 30 opening for the hotel but that bears no resemblance to anything I know about the ski resort," Ms Mooney said.

The hotel cancelled all their bookings up until that date as advised by the state government, but at the moment they're holding bookings from June 30 onwards. The hotel is the largest in Perisher and Ms Mooney said they expected to run at "loosely 50 per cent capacity" this season to ensure each room could be deep cleaned after guests checked out.

"We will definitely be at reduced capacity and that capacity is largely going to be built around how many people we can feed in the hotel, and how many staff we can accommodate safely in the hotel as well," Ms Mooney said.

"We have worked out ways that we can open that are quite good and we're quite happy with, now it's just a matter of waiting, waiting."

Some of those things include alternating rooms to ensure each room is deep cleaned before welcoming other guests, and not having their traditional breakfast buffet.

Ms Mooney said the hardest thing has been trying to stay positive when there's been no clear direction.

"At the moment I'm in the positive frame of mind, and all this is going to happen. You can see how it can work, and it's a really good thing."

The view from the dining room of the Man From Snowy River Hotel at Perisher. Picture: Supplied

The view from the dining room of the Man From Snowy River Hotel at Perisher. Picture: Supplied

She said most problems can be solved.

"There is always a solution. Some of them have taken a lot longer to solve than others but I'm really happy with our plan to open and even though we've got limited capacity it's looking quite viable for the hotel."

As for safety, Ms Mooney said the COVID-safe operating plan is "extremely complex and extremely comprehensive". It requires plans for cleaning of rooms, staff protection and social distancing provisions, among other things.

"We've got some unique solutions up here that we have to deal with like boot and clothes drying rooms, so we've got some unique stuff that we've got to try and solve but we've got that in the plan now."

"We could be on version 51 [of the COVID-safe plan] tomorrow but the good thing is that it snowed overnight, and it's amazing what that does for your psyche," she said on Friday.

Meanwhile, between Jindabyne and the snowfields sits Wildbrumby Distillery, a business which has made a significant pivot from providing full service food and schnapps tastings to selling schnapps and German sausages from a caravan in their carpark, and moving some sales online.

Distillery worker Tom Evans said sales would normally be ramping up at this time of year. "With being allowed 50 people from June 1 now, that should make a difference to what we can do, that might allow us to open our cafe back up," Mr Evans said.

"But things aren't going to be like they used to be," Mr Evans said.

The distillery was hit hard by the bushfires. They opened for a few good days before coronavirus hit.

"It's been an absolute shocker."

Mr Evans said he's not sure how the ski season will go ahead but he's hoping there will be an announcement soon.

Tom Evans from Wildbrumby Distillery near Thredbo. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Tom Evans from Wildbrumby Distillery near Thredbo. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

It would be a significant hit to the bottom line of many businesses if the ski season did not go ahead.

While the numbers are variable, the ski industry estimates about two million people visit the NSW resorts annually, a Department of Planning, Industry and Environment spokesman said.

The daily numbers can peak at more than 20,000 per day.

According to Perisher, at full capacity their 47 lifts can ship almost 54,000 skiers per hour up the mountain.

Australian Ski Areas Association chief executive Colin Hackworth said the snow season is worth $2.4 billion and 23,000 jobs in regional Australia.

"It's a very, very big slice of regional Australia's jobs and livelihoods. The ski season needs to operate for the benefit of regional Australia," Mr Hackworth said.

He said the ski resorts are working on their COVID-safe plans following the welcome announcement from Mr Barilaro.

"The ski resorts can now start to prepare with some level of certainty to operate a ski season in 2020," Mr Hackworth said.

"Within that context though, the health and safety of the Australian community remains the highest priority for all Australia's ski resorts."

Mr Hackworth said businesses will only be able to operate if deemed to be able to do so in safe manner. He said there would be measures in place to help combat the spread of coronavirus, for example, there would social distancing in lift queues.

"The resorts are coming up with their COVID-safe operating plans so all aspects of the businesses will be looked at under the microscope so that each aspect can be operated within government guidelines."

"Australian ski resorts... don't want to be part of a future problem.

"We believe we will be able to have a meaningful ski season in 2020."

This story Australia's 2020 ski season will go ahead, but in what capacity? first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.