Revealed: Former frontrunner to buy Whakapapa skifield back in the race

Newshub can reveal at least two potential buyers are keen to throw their hat in the ring to run Whakapapa's beleaguered skifield.

With Turoa now sold to Pure Turoa Limited, expressions of interest are due in to Whakapapa's receivers, Calibre Partners, by Friday May 10.

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, which previously owned both fields, went into voluntary administration in 2022 following the pandemic and three crippling ski seasons.

Last year's frontrunner to buy Whakapapa has confirmed to Newshub he's back in the race, but lifepass holders are likely to remain out in the cold.

Lifepasses were deemed worthless last month by the receivers Calibre Partners, despite thousands of New Zealanders buying them in good faith from Ruapehu Alpine Lifts up until the start of 2020.

"We are gutted. You know it's a big financial burden to try and recover from. So yeah absolutely gutted we can't ski the mountain as a lifepass holder," said New Plymouth father of three Charles Widdicombe.

He and wife Fiona put more than $20,000 on their mortgage in 2019 to secure four passes, hoping for a lifetime of skiing on Mt Ruapehu.

Whakapapa CEO Travis Donoghue said it's "a disappointing outcome for many".

Both Whakapapa and Turoa, which is now operating under its new owner Pure Turoa Ltd, are offering lifepass holders discounts this season on season passes.

"As far as possible please try and maintain a relationship with Whakapapa if you can, this 2024 more than ever is so important. The affordability of the sport globally has a reputation, we need to make sure we are putting value into not only relationships with former lifepass holders but all-comers into the future," said Donoghue.

Dave Mazey, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts former boss prior to 2016, has confirmed to Newshub he's putting in an expression of interest for Whakapapa skifield alongside investment partners The South Island Office.

"A number of circumstances have changed since we made a decision pre-Christmas to withdraw our interest. You know the Pure Turoa Ltd process has gone through and Turoa is now covered - we have a better sense of what that license looks like and we assume a similar one will come up at Whakapapa."

Mazey said he felt an obligation "to have another crack at it" and his investors feel Whakapapa's strong management team, a deeper relationship with iwi and the granting of Turoa's 10-year license have changed the game.

"The Crown is quite clear that place will fall over if someone doesn't do it. We think we can make it work."

If the receivers invite Mazey to formalise his bid, he said he won't be able to honour life passes.

"When RAL bought Turoa back in 2000 there were lifepasses there and the company did not honour those, it's like when you buy an airline ticket and the company goes into receivership. Sympathetic as I can be, it happens... it's not nice."

Another potential buyer for Whakapapa is prepared to offer them.

Auckland businessman John Sandford is registering an expression of interest in Whakapapa alongside "local businesses, some from Auckland, and further afield".

He missed out on buying Turoa last year, but after growing up in Raetihi he's passionate about working with iwi to see Whakapapa thrive again.

"My family first came to the area in 1908, we have a deep and long connection," he said.

Sandford said lifepasses are an integral part of business on the mountain and "we will honour them - it won't be a matter of skiing for free but we will have a package we think will be acceptable to the huge majority of lifepass holders".

An expression of interest to the receivers is also imminent from Ngāti Hikairo.

"If we are going to sit and korero at the table with the big boys, we are in boots and all," a spokesperson told Newshub.

Whakapapa's skywaka gondola could be a noose around the neck for any new buyer though.

Official Information Act documents from 2018 obtained by Newshub show when MBIE was approached by Ruapehu Alpine Lifts for $10 million to buy it, MBIE's own forecasting flagged even a 1 percent change in revenue could make the operation unviable.

Any new bidder will also assume liability for the $14m in bonds issued to fund the Sky Waka, debt owed to bondholders like Tuwharetoa.

And while many may steer clear this season, Whakapapa CEO Travis Donoghue said staff will be ready to welcome crowds from King's Birthday weekend when the slopes reopen for snow play and sledding.