It’s known in the Queenstown area as ‘white gold’ but those big dumps will have even more economic significance than usual this winter in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

News that ski areas would all be opening, albeit under tight Level 2 limitations, had hospitality operators and business in the Queenstown area breathing a huge sigh of relief. Even more important was the news that flights could resume and Kiwis could travel. Almost half of the ski season passengers through Queenstown Airport are New Zealanders.

However, it’s been with cautious optimism that operators have kicked back into gear, as they await the big news – approval of a trans-Tasman bubble leading into a very different economic climate.

With Australians making up about 36 percent of winter ski season visitors to Queenstown, that’s the big news Wakatipu businesses are now waiting for to top up business.

“Queenstown’s just wishing and hoping for an Australian bubble this winter,” says Joe’s Garage and Air Espresso co-owner and general manager Justin Bird.

Business was booming at Joe’s Five Mile on his first day opening on Thursday May 14, although capacity was obviously down under Level 2 restrictions.

The opening up of domestic travel and news that the wage subsidy would be extended had given operators some hope and was a big relief.

Snow would be a huge bonus and attract Kiwis from all over the country, says Justin. With so many New Zealanders having to postpone holiday plans and holding airline credit, he was also hoping there could be some encouraging numbers through Air Espresso.

“We just hope that Aussie bubble kicks in in time for the Australian July school holidays.”

To get through winter and have that trans-Tasman bubble up and running would be fantastic, says Wai Group director Jan Rae, whose company operates four Queenstown restaurants, three of which re-opened on Thursday.

The fourth will follow suit once numbers pick up. “We have a huge mix of Australians in our normal winter market,” says Jan.

It was great news that the ski areas could operate and Air New Zealand was flying again though. It might be “like the old days” in terms of Level 2-style operations and a whole different business environment re-opening this week, but it was of some consolation to local operators that May has traditionally always been Queenstown’s quietest month of the year anyway, she says.

 “Numbers are tracking well, but it’s an unusual feeling when you’re used to being busy.”

Attiqa and Sundeck co-owner and manager Stefano De Santis says the added boost of a ski season, attracting Kiwis and hopefully soon Australians, would make such a difference.

However, he’d been heartened by the amazing support from locals since re-opening on Thursday. “We’ve had a massive response (even though the venue’s now limited to 25 instead of 50),” he says.

“If we can get the skifields and trans-Tasman flights open this winter it will make the world of difference,” says QT Queenstown Hotel general manager Jeremy Black.

He was already starting to see some positive activity coming through by Friday, May 15, obviously nowhere near what was needed though, he says.

All operators were hugely grateful for the extension of the wage subsidy to keep on their staff, in many cases three quarters or more of them in Queenstown on work visas.

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