'Circus' on Mt Ruapehu as skifield quota sees booked travellers turned away at last second

Hundreds of Kiwis were driven via shuttle to the ski fields, with many only to be told they couldn't access them.
Hundreds of Kiwis were driven via shuttle to the ski fields, with many only to be told they couldn't access them. Photo credit: Getty

Kiwis attempting to head up Mt Ruapehu have been left frustrated after a "circus" erupted at the gate leaving customers turned away.

Tauranga resident Hayley Smith said her husband, six-year-old son and his grandfather had driven down on Saturday night for a day at Whakapapa ski field.

The family had paid for accommodation, ski hire and booked seats on a National Park Shuttle after missing out on booking a car park due to high demand.

"They get there on the shuttle first thing on Sunday morning and the shuttle's turned around at the bottom of the mountain and everyone's like what the hell is going on," Smith told Newshub.

"The [road controllers] were like 'DOC (the Department of Conservation) made some changes overnight and you aren't allowed up here anymore'."

Smith said passengers were "pi**ed off" they weren't allowed up.

She said one woman demanded to be let up but the road controllers threatened to call police if she didn't leave.

Smith explained there were potentially hundreds of other people in the same boat as other shuttles were also turned away.

Another person said they were trying to get up to Whakapapa ski field at 8:15am on Sunday but their shuttle also wasn't allowed through.

She said they were "not letting anymore up the mountain" and there was "bad organisation".

"WTF why book in the first place if you're going to do this?"

Currently, Whakapapa ski area is limited from its standard carrying capacity of 5500 people down to 1800 due to COVID-19 level 2 restrictions.

Shuttles in the area have also been given a passenger quota of 300 people per day.

Colin Baker of Ruapehu Scenic Shuttles said there was "a heap of problems that culminated in what occurred on Sunday", beginning with the quota.

"Frantically within 24 hours [of the alert level 2 announcement] they gave us a capacity of 300 which is shared amongst all of the transport operators," he said.

"The immediate reaction to that was why can't we have that allocated per transport operator. The reply from DOC was the transport operators can sort it out amongst themselves.

"Well my analogy to that is if you have six dogs and you put a bowl of dog food in front of them they are not all going to take an even chunk, are they?"

He said despite trying to get DOC to allocate a portion of the 300 per operator, they haven't.

"We've ended up with a situation where certain operators were able to use their stronger marketing position to fill up the seats."

Half of the shuttle operators are working together but some operators are "too greedy" and they have ended up with an unfair allocation, he said.

Baker told Newshub it's now become "a race to the top [of Mt Ruapehu] and that's pretty much what happened on Sunday".

He said on Saturday DOC decided to release an extra 200 seats for shuttle operators after the 300 maximum was reached, because they were cancelling customers who were quite angry to not be allowed to get on shuttles.

But on Sunday morning, DOC told shuttle operators the number of 300 would be strictly enforced.

"A few buses were on the road when this message went out, they didn't get the message simply because they were driving… who's going to check a text message while driving a bus? Those buses arrived after the 300 capacity limit had been reached."

He said there's been "no coordination between the operators and DOC" and has even received threatening emails from DOC.

"For us personally it has been a very destructive exercise in difficult times that could have been avoided."

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts CEO Jono Dean said they understand the capacity imposes significant restrictions on people.

"We regret this situation however have no choice but to comply with the Government alert levels," Dean said.

"We have strongly urged people to plan their trip in 2020 and book their parking. This is advertised throughout our website. 

"We would highly value the chance to make this right for the people involved in this situation, we agree this is unacceptable that this has occurred."

Dean said it is up to shuttle operators to ensure they operate to a maximum capacity of 300 passengers to ensure the numbers are managed.

"On this occasion, it seems they have sold a greater level of tickets than were available for sale."

Dean said if they operated to their limit - "there would be no need to turn any vehicles around".

DOC's operations director for the central North Island Damian Coutts said they understand people's frustration but the issue was driven by demand exceeding capacity on the ski fields.

He said Ruapehu Alpine Lifts currently manage ski field patronage and they had agreed a maximum of 300 passengers can be delivered to the ski field by shuttle daily.

"How the shuttle companies negotiate to share passenger patronage is a matter for the shuttle operators.

"The Department does not run the shuttle businesses or the ski-field but is keen to see a better distribution of passengers among companies and to see people are able to access and enjoy their day on the mountain.

"However, these pressure points are likely to remain while the country is in a level 2 state of COVID-19 alert."

Hayley Smith said after complaining on the Mt Ruapehu Facebook page on Sunday, at 11am RAL offered to let them up but by then they were already in Taupo having left.

"It's insanely frustrating, it's just disappointing really. All that was needed was a little bit of communication."