Queenstown is ready to roll out the welcome mat after 330 days without a scheduled international flight.
Monday afternoon’s Qantas flight from Sydney marks the return of direct trans-Tasman travel to the resort town.
It is a big morale boost for businesses before skiers start hitting the slopes next month.
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When Glen Sowry took on the top job at Queenstown Airport last year, the country was still in lockdown.
“Walking around the terminal was like something out of a western with tumbleweed blowing down the street. No passengers, no planes, so it was all a little surreal.
“But it’s steadily built back from there.”
The return of Australians would be a massive shot in the arm for the local economy and morale, he said.
“This is a huge day for Queenstown Airport and I’d suggest the whole Southern Lakes region. It’s been 330 days since we had direct flights from the Tasman into Queenstown.
“So to welcome Qantas back direct from Sydney this afternoon is a really big milestone for the recovery of the Southern Lakes and Queenstown.”
Airlines were predicting a good bounce back, scheduling capacity at about 75% of their pre-Covid levels.
While Qantas was leading the trans-Tasman charge, Jetstar was due back next week and Air New Zealand would start direct flights from next month.
The initial focus was on the eastern coast of Australia – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast – but Sowry was not ruling out other short-haul routes opening up in the future.
During the July school holidays, he expected there would be up to 57 flights – arrivals and departures – on peak days.
“Around two-thirds of those will be domestic flights and one-third will be Tasman so if you think of that roughly 20 flights coming and going in our peak out of Australia.
“So that’s a fantastic build from absolutely zero yesterday.”
A short drive from the airport in Arrowtown, Mandy Keep teaches people how to find gold in the nearby river through her tour business and local gift store, RAW.
She opened last April and was delighted Australians would soon have direct access to the district.
“It’s fantastic. Even just having Auckland in lockdown was a big difference and impact to business.
“Having the internationals, they’re really excited to be here and it going to be a great welcome for them.”
It was a well-timed morale boost, she said.
“This is sort of a gray area between Easter and the ski season so we’re welcoming the snow for the skiers, and I don’t think it’s going to be a bad winter so I think we’ll all survive.”
Ziptrek Ecotours executive director Trent Yeo was pleased the flights were returning before the ski season.
“Every business has been really struggling to work out how much it needs to ramp up, and this is just the signal we need to be able to get people on the ground to serve people better.”
He recently flew back from Melbourne, and said other passengers were keen for direct flights to the resort town.
“There was actually a few people coming to Queenstown indirectly. But all of them were saying ‘of course I would have come earlier and it would be much easier if I could come direct’.
“I think the doors are open and the barriers are being removed, and every time you do that, it makes it easier for particularly the leisure traveler.”
Ramping up was a challenge for many businesses as they tried to find enough staff, train them up and make sure they had their infrastructure ready to welcome back more visitors, he said.
He planned to have enough staff to cover 80% of what they had in 2019.
“Try to be understanding that we’re all trying to get back on our feet after being knocked over for a very long time.
“We are making our best efforts to do that and I think that if we all are a little bit patient, we can make sure that we can have the greatest experience we can offer down here in the Queenstown Lakes.”
The first direct flight from Sydney was expected to touch down around 2.30pm.