The Whakapapa Sky Waka Gondola – about the people for the people
Published: Jul 29, 2019 · Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Hearing the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) was supporting the high-speed gondola for Whakapapa ski field was the best news this community’s had in years,” says local Ruapehu businessman Bruce Lawrence.
Mr Lawrence and wife Dianne have run Pipers Lodge in National Park for 31 years and provide accommodation and Tongariro Crossing tours. During that time they have seen many locals leave the Ruapehu District in search of employment – with the population dropping from nearly 17,000 to below 12,000 since 1996.
“This is a lovely vibrant community in one of the most beautiful locations in the world – but the challenge of finding work and the current seasonal aspect of many of the work opportunities has made it very difficult,” he said.
The gondola, launched at the UNESCO Dual World Heritage site in June, is the circuit breaker the situation requires.
“This is very exciting,” says Mr Lawrence. “The gondola is going to have a huge flow on effect in terms of bringing growth and employment to the region and that we will see the growth in summer, as well as in winter – which is really important.”
The $10 million Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) loan enabled Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) to move ahead with the $25m project. The project is expected to boost tourism across the central North Island and help double regional tourism income to $400m a year by 2028.
A key benefit will be an increase in the numbers of non skiers using the mountain’s facilities, particularly in spring, summer and autumn.
Building and operating the gondola is expected to generate 150 jobs and potentially 400 more through associated activities.
Warren Furner, Manager of Land Transport and Economic Development for Ruapehu District Council said the gondola will be transformative for regioinal tourism.
“The backbone of our local economy has been sheep and beef farming, but with farming becoming more automated, there are now fewer jobs in that sector.
“This region has been identified by the Government as a ‘surge region’ - economically deprived and ways need to be found to improve its contribution to the New Zealand economy and, in doing so, lift the living standards of people in the district. Tourism has been identified as a very significant growth opportunity.
“Our regional economic development plan identified a number of significant investments that would make a major contribution to the economy and the region. Six of those are iconic projects and the Sky Waka Gondola is the first and most important of these. We have to polish our diamond, and this is the diamond.”
The Sky Waka will replace the current 35 year old open chair lifts which take 18 minutes to carry people from Bruce Base to the Knoll Ridge Café in two stages. The 50 gondola cabins will each accommodate 10 passengers and feature floor to ceiling glass with breathtaking 360 degree views, internal ski racks, audio, lighting and leather seating. They will be capable of transporting 2,400 people per hour over the 1.8km route in just five minutes. It will also operate in more adverse conditions – in winds of up to 100km, as opposed to 50km for the chairlifts.
“Where we have capacity for visitor growth is in the summer and shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. The gondola is the hook to bring people in far greater numbers at those times and it is enabling us to develop more activities, including cultural tours.”
Bruce Lawrence anticipates local businesses across the region will grow.
“I started coming to Pipers Lodge from Auckland as a kid in 1973 and then I would work here in school holidays. Back then all the owner had to worry about was if you had a poor snow season. Businesses in the area have had a lot to worry about since then though. New Zealand going to a seven day working week saw the weekend social club bus tours business disappear.
The growing congestion on the motorways also impacted business.
We had eruptions of Ruapehu and Tongariro and there would still be the poor snow seasons too - RAL’s snowmaking has reduced that significantly though. After the 1995 Ruapehu eruption we got together and formed the local business association, because we were all struggling, and started working together on a marketing plan. As a community we respect each other’s privacy, but we are always there to help one another – and the same goes for businesses, even if we are competitors.
“The growth of Tongariro Crossing business has helped and a lot of us have diversified to find different ways to increase business during summer. We have seen some growth over the past four or five years – but I believe we are going to see far bigger growth now.”
Jono Dean, RAL’s General Manager for Whakapapa, says the Sky Waka will significantly increase accessibility for people of all ages and abilities.
“The support from the PGF enabled us to accelerate this project and the region, community and New Zealand will benefit significantly from that. This is the ‘Ferrari’ of gondolas, an attraction in its own right – people will ride it for the experience, not simply to ski.
“The gondola opens up the trip to the top for so many people. Elderly people, people with accessabilty needs, people in wheelchairs and large family groups, will be able to access the gondolas together on one level and exit on one level. People travelling to the Knoll Ridge Chalet will no longer be exposed to the elements and they can enjoy the trip to and from New Zealand’s highest restaurant, with breathtaking views on the journey and from the venue.
“We will also be providing a world class food offering – we have just appointed a new role of executive chef to Knoll Ridge Café. We see people coming here for the gondola and dining experience 365 days a year – including a proposed Christmas Day lunch.
“This is an anchor tourism project. The flow-on effect for other businesses of a greater number of visitors will be significant. More visitors to the region means more business for other cafes and restaurants, hotels, motels, supermarkets, petrol stations.”
Mr Dean moved to the region from Wellington – but he recognises the employment challenges for many who want to stay in the region or move there.
“I used to come here to visit my uncle in Ohakune to ski and my love of the area grew in childhood. It is a unique place and community but it is a very hard place in terms of opportunities and we have a reducing population in key areas. I believe this will make the difference. The PGF loan has enabled the gondola to be built. People in the area are now seeing that there will be long term viable options for year-round jobs flowing out of the tourism opportunities.”
Extensive consultation with Ngati Tuwharetoa and the Department of Conservation has been an integral part of the project, which will see a 50% reduction in the number of structures on the mountain. As a public benefit entity, RAL proceeds are invested back into developing the mountain’s facilities. The gondola project is part of a $100m reinvestment strategy announced by RAL in 2015.
“Our key focus is the people of the region,” says Mr Dean. “We have custodial responsibility for the area, that is something we are very proud of. At the heart of everything we do is the ancestral story of the people and the history of Tongariro, the forefathers and the whakapapa,and making absolute sure our visitors know that is what we are about.”