Slippery slope: ski industry clings to hope of open season

Victoria’s snow-dependent industries are clinging to the hope of a near-full ski season even though restrictions in Melbourne are set to run into the opening on the Queen’s Birthday weekend.

The pandemic all but wiped out last year’s ski season but alpine resorts have reported strong bookings for this winter.

However, restrictions in Melbourne have sparked concerns that operators may face another season of lost income.

Mounds of artificially created snow at Mount Baw Baw. Credit:Justin McManus

Australian Ski Areas Association chief executive Colin Hackworth said the industry was disappointed Melburnians would be unable to travel for the opening weekend although resorts would open to residents of regional Victoria.

However, he said the arrival of the vaccine and a possible decline in cases offered some hope restrictions may not eat too far into the snow season. And long-term forecasts for snow were also encouraging.

“Everybody’s very hopeful,” he said. ”In the tourism industry, everybody’s an optimist, you have to be.“

Mr Hackworth said resort operators had generated extensive amounts of man-made snow in anticipation of a busy season.

During the 2020 snow season, Victorian alpine resorts received about 90,000 visitors, a 90 per cent decline on the previous year, according to the Alpine Resorts Co-ordinating Council end of season report.

The visitation collapse dealt a heavy financial blow, with economic activity plummeting to $109 million compared to more than $1 billion generated in the 2019 Victorian snow season.

Mount Baw Baw worker Amon Bradshaw with dingoes that live on the resort. Credit:Justin McManus

At Mount Baw Baw, a snow machine has been running 24 hours a day since early May, piling fine shards of ice into mounds that will be spread out across the ski runs to provide a base for the natural snowfall.

Several snow guns also run throughout the night when the temperature falls below 2 degrees and the humidity is right.

Mount Baw Baw general manager Andrew Tingate said snow making was important because it ensured at least beginner and novice skiers could experience the snow and get lessons.

He said the resort was preparing for a busy ski season even though Melbourne remains in lockdown.

“The advanced bookings have been really solid for the winter season,” he said.

Mr Tingate said having regional Victoria open would be enough for a viable season at Mount Baw Baw although they might not operate all of the seven lifts.

Mount Baw Baw general manager Andrew Tingate beside the mounds of manmade snow. Credit:Justin McManus

The Southern Alpine Management Board oversees Lake Mountain and Mount Baw Baw and in 2019 they had a total of 250,829 visitor days during the ski season.

The board’s 2019 annual report estimated the resorts generated more than $157 million for the visitor economy.

Last winter, the lifts operated for just four days at Falls Creek and Mount Hotham, compared to 45 days on Mount Buller and 42 days on Mount Baw Baw.

But in the 2019 winter season Mount Buller had about 400,000 visitors, accounting for 550,000 visitor days.

A Mount Buller spokeswoman said resort management hoped snow conditions and government guidelines would enable it to welcome regional Victorians for the Queen’s Birthday weekend.

At Falls Creek there were 465,000 visitor days in 2019.

Workers at Mount Baw Baw gearing up for the snow season. Credit:Justin McManus

A Falls Creek Resort management spokeswoman said regional Victorians and interstate visitors could visit the resort for the opening weekend.

But she said planned “festivities” had been put on hold and new dates would be announced once restrictions eased.

Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said there had been great pent-up demand for skiing in Victoria, with Australians unable to travel to the US, Canada or Japan.

But she said snow-dependent tourism operators were nervous now with Melbourne in lockdown.

“They can’t go through losing another ski season but that’s what they’re staring down the barrel of right now,” she said.

Towns surrounding ski resorts are heavily dependent on the snow season for their economic survival.

Crystal Petschack, who manages the Little Red Duck Cafe in Noojee near Mount Baw Baw, said last year’s ski season was “almost non-existent” and hoped this year would be busy.

Little Red Duck Cafe manager Crystal Petschack and owner Rosie Duck in Noojee. Credit:Justin McManus

She said the cafe could sell up to 300 coffees — double the normal trade — on a busy day during the snow season. The business relies on both the summer and winter tourism periods.

Ms Petschack said big groups visited the town during the snow season and demand for food and drinks was high.

“Some of those groups can be up to 30 or 40 people which doesn’t usually happen out here,” she said.

Tourism North East chief executive Bess Nolan-Cook said tourism operators were cautiously optimistic after the devastation of last year’s lost ski season.

She said Mount Hotham, Buller, Stirling and Falls Creek contributed between 25 per and 28 per cent of visitation to the high country annually.

“There’s a huge winter trade that’s connected to surrounding towns like Bright, Mansfield and Myrtleford,” Ms Nolan-Cook said.

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