Closures, no snow play and more space: how Covid-19 has changed Australia’s ski season

This year’s Australian ski season is far from business as usual. Tickets are more limited (though still available), tourism operators have expressed fears around transmission of Covid-19, and in Victoria, the ski season was delayed.

But how have those changes played out on the slopes? For starters, there are fewer people about, but can you still buy a hot chocolate on the hill, ski your favourite runs and book your toddler into ski school? Snow fanatic Jennifer Ennion visited Thredbo in the New South Wales Snowy Mountains to find out.

The lift lines are empty

Gone are the days of crowded lift lines and 30-minute waits. Social-distancing rules mean there are fewer skiers and boarders on the hill lining up for chairlifts and T-bars.

Although there are also fewer people allowed on a chair or T at one time, this hasn’t had the adverse effect resorts had warned about. During peak season in July, lines at Thredbo moved quickly, which I partially attribute to more proactive lift attendants. For example, instead of sliding towards a chair haphazardly with the throng, as is often the case, there is order, which equals efficiency. You’ll also notice a tonne of Covid-19 signage reminding people to keep 1.5 metres apart, and that only two people, or a group of friends or family, can upload on a chair together.

Say goodbye to snow play

If you’re hoping to take the kids tobogganing this year, forget about it. Kosciuszko national park has prohibited all snow play for 2020 and any groups disobeying the rules are being asked to move on by resort security. For parents of small children, there is no childcare at Thredbo or neighbouring resort Perisher, and Thredboland (a ski program for three-to-six-year-olds) is also unavailable.

For bigger kids and adults who love hitting rails and jumps, you’ll have to find natural mountain features, as there are no terrain parks at Thredbo either. Perisher, however, has kept its award-winning parks, opening four, including Leichhardt and Piper.

Expect to wait at restaurants

As is the case across NSW, there are limits on the number of people allowed in eateries, and more space between tables. Don’t even think about getting out of your seat, either. NSW government rules dictate that patrons must remain seated during mealtimes, and that means no roaming for hyperactive little people. To ensure as many travellers get the chance to dine out as possible (and for financial viability, no doubt) some cafes have also put time limits on how long you can enjoy your meal.

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At Central Road 2625, one of Thredbo’s upmarket cafes, you get 20 minutes if you’re ordering coffee and cake, or an hour if you’re dropping in for lunch. If you want to eat on the hill, Merritts Mountain House is as popular as ever and you can expect to wait around 40 minutes for a table and meal if you want to eat between 11.30am and 2:30pm. There’s a friendly security guard on the door to ensure people are doing the right thing, because there are plenty who aren’t.

Diners are served more quickly if they opt for takeaway, but the alfresco tables get snapped up. Right across the Snowies you’re also expected to sign in for tracing purposes.

Less traffic

Getting to the Snowy Mountains has never been easier, with less traffic along Kosciuszko Road and the Alpine Way. This translates to little lineup at national park entry gates and more spots in resort car parks.

While we’re on transport, Thredbo’s free shuttles around the village are still operating, with every second pair of seats roped off and marked with crosses to ensure space between skiers.

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Strict store numbers for groceries

In Cooma, Jindabyne and Thredbo, stores have entry signs stating the number of people allowed inside at one time, and managers are being appropriately strict.

At Woolworths Jindabyne, for example, a security guard counts the number of shoppers entering and leaving, and you can expect a short wait in a cordoned-off line when you go to buy groceries. It’s orderly and respected.

Unfortunately, during peak times not all shoppers keep their distance from others once they’re in the store. As for paying, cash is being accepted across the board, although some stores prefer a card, and there’s plenty of hand sanitiser about.

More terrain

One of the benefits of the reduced number of skiers and boarders this season means there is more terrain per person, or at least it feels that way.

As the season progresses, resorts are opening up various runs based on snowfall and patronage, but the vibe is certainly that there aren’t as many people to share the mountain with. It makes for perfect learning conditions for those needing more space to nail their turns, and a higher chance of finding untouched powder when Mother Nature delivers.

So is it worth it?

For this snowboarding obsessive, and all the others out there, the answer is yes. Not only does the ski industry need our financial and moral support, but being in the mountains and crisp alpine air is good for the soul after months of isolation.

That said, if you have children who aren’t yet skiing, then it’s wiser to save your dollars for next season when (hopefully) the creches and junior ski schools resume. The closures and social distancing at venues make it hard to entertain little people.

For those of us old enough to hit the slopes, Thredbo and Perisher still have lessons available and plenty of terrain to keep skiers happy, while Charlotte Pass snow resort is also welcoming visitors.

In Victoria, the second wave of lockdown has seen lifts come to a standstill at Hotham and Falls Creek, however regional Victorians are being urged by Falls management to still visit for a snowy (albeit non-skiing) holiday.

If you’re in Victoria’s countryside and are itching for some turns, your best bet is Mt Buller, which continues to run lifts, lessons and snowmaking, with Covid-19 measures in place.

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