Sledding on Mt Ruapehu is set to get a whole lot more expensive
Free sledding and snow play in some popular corners of Mt Ruapehu's ski fields is soon to be consigned to history, with hefty new charges imminent.
Locals are furious that the company which runs the Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields is proposing to charge $59 for an adult and youth, or $35 for a youth alone, for a new sledding, snow-playing and sightseeing package. The company has set aside refurbished areas in Happy Valley and Alpine Meadow that were previously free.
Those areas have traditionally been used by North Island families giving children their first taste of snow.
Families could take their own home-made sled and walk, or pay a small fee to hire a sled and use the carpet lift.
Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL), a not-for-profit corporate, has been accused of a money grab, but the company says it has spent millions developing the areas and the charges are fair.
RAL has fenced off the snow play area at Happy Valley on Whakapapa and plans to do the same at Turoa's Alpine Meadow, forcing people to purchase tickets and pass through turnstiles.
The charges include compulsory add-ons such as sled hire, a sight-seeing chair ride and shuttle bus. A family package costs $139 for two adults and three children.
Some other ski fields, such as Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Mt Hutt, say they provide sledding areas which can be used free-of-charge.
RAL's new chief executive, Ross Copland, said there were still lots of areas on Ruapehu where families could play or sled for free.
RAL had invested $4m in the Happy Valley area, including covered lifts and state of the art snowmaking machinery and it was unfair that skiers and snowboarders carried all the cost, he said.
The areas RAL was charging for were sledding slopes serviced by dedicated lifts and about the size of a quarter acre section - the National park was 79,000ha in total.
He said the company was not allowed to restrict public access to its ski fields. But under its concession, the National Parks Act and the Tongariro National Park Management Plan it was able to charge reasonable costs for the use of its facilities.
That included snow itself, which wouldn't be there at the moment without snow making machines.
Copland said safety was another big factor, with sledders often colliding with skiers.
"It was a chaotic experience in previous years, with everything from real estate signs, fridge doors and car bonnets being used to slide down the slope, and there were a lot of injuries as a result."
He said there was a large area known as Meads Wall which would still be available for free sledding, although he acknowledged it had cliffs at either end and parental supervision was needed.
"There's been some sensational things said, like people won't be able to build a snowman or throw a snowball without having to pay, which is not correct.
"You can build a snowman anywhere you like in the National Park, and we've provided a big mound of snow for kids to play in."
Locals say the alternative sledding areas are not necessarily safe, accessible or widely known about.
"I think it's ridiculous," said Lucy Conway, Raetihi resident and former Waimarino-Waiouru Community Board member.
"I saw Happy Valley fenced off and I thought 'they can't do that it's a National Park.
"People get their first touch of snow normally by just playing around and sliding on rubbish bags, and there's going to be a whole lot of people who don't do that anymore."
Another resident commented on Facebook: "Where's the community spirit gone?
"I get that you have facilities that need to be paid for, but tobogganing of all things to charge for is getting petty and greedy."
Copland said the costs were fair, and on a par with attractions such as Rainbow's End and the Rotorua luge, but RAL was considering a cheaper option that didn't include a sightseeing pass.
"We're still taking feedback."
National Park Community Board member John Chapman said he was concerned that the many low income people in the area would be shut out from enjoying the ski fields.
"I have a concern that it creates a precedent of charging in National Parks for access."
James Barsdell, the Department of Conservation's acting operations manager for Tongariro, said RAL was required to provide safe snow play areas to minimise clashes with skiers, and its licence permitted it to "make business decisions" aimed at getting a return on investments.
"The department would investigate any complaints of unreasonable charging, and require RAL to demonstrate those costs incurred were reasonable."
Waimarino-Waiouru ward councillor, Vivienne Hoeta accused RAL and DOC of exploiting legislation.
"This organisation is using fences to be able to ensure those using the facilities are paying just like those catching a chairlift and DOC are saying it's okay."
Ruapehu Mayor Don Cameron said Copland had some hard lessons to learn if he wanted to keep locals on side.
"He's got to be more sensitive to what's going on. He's got to realise you can't change things like the way he's done and not expect a kickback.
"He doesn't quite understand that National Park isn't Coronet Peak and it's got to be treated as a National Park."
* This article has been corrected. An earlier version reported that Ruapehu Alpine Lifts Ltd, which runs the Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields, was proposing to charge $59 for adults and $35 for children to access the Happy Valley and Alpine Meadow areas which were previously free. In fact, the company was charging $59 for an adult and youth, for a day pass that included sledding and snow-play in these areas, sightseeing lifts and shuttle buses. A youth alone was $35, and children under 5 were free. There will still be areas in Happy Valley and Alpine Meadow where families can play and sled, free of charge, when snow conditions permit.
- Sunday Star Times