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Despite a late start due to unseasonably warm weather with record temperatures for May and a mild start to June, the first ski fields in New Zealand are now open for business and current fresh falls will help kick start others.

Mt Hutt, the Canterbury regionís largest commercial ski area and just an hour from Christchurch airport, was the first to open and has already attracted strong interest from Kiwis as well as international visitors, especially Australians.

NZSki chief executive James Coddington said, "The season has started with a real bang and people are coming out of the woodwork to make the best of the new snow. Theyíre coming in their droves and are excited - itís great to see so many happy faces."

With a later start, it is hoped the 2011 ski season may be longer than usual and some predictions are it could continue until late October - good news for Rugby World Cup visitors who want to combine their passion for action on the rugby field as well as the ski field during their New Zealand stay.

Mt Hutt was the first ski field in New Zealand to open for the 2011 season, closely followed by Turoa on Mount Ruapehu, in the central North Island.

Artificial snow making saved the day for many ski fields when a drop in temperatures allowed operators to fire up snow guns and prepare the pistes for opening.

Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter said that although skiers had to wait a bit longer than usual, the hope was for a great season, with enough snow to allow skiing right through to late October.

He said Canterbury offered some of the best skiing in New Zealand, with 13 ski areas all within easy reach of Christchurch International Airport.

"The fields range from large commercial areas, such as Mt Hutt and Porters, to smaller club fields, meaning all ages and abilities are catered for," said Hunter.

Ski fields in the Mackenzie area, a half-day drive from Christchurch Airport, are also starting to open - offering family-friendly options at Ohau, Mt Dobson, Fox Peak and Roundhill, as well as the heli-skiing thrills of the Tasman Glacier.

"Those not interested in skiing or snowboarding are also well catered for as Tekapo township is a wonderful winter base," Hunter said. "With its Alpine Springs hot pools and spa, ice rink and snow tubing with magnificent views of the lake thereís plenty to keep the whole family occupied when theyíre not on the slopes. Night star-gazing in the impressive skies above Tekapo is another must-do while youíre there."

NZSki, which has invested NZ$100m in its three ski fields over the past 10 years, reports a 62% increase in business over the past three years.

Marketing manager Craig Douglas says the major investment in snowmaking machinery, which can transform slopes without snow into skiable areas in just three days, guarantees a full and extended season of 135 days, up from 70 to 80 days.

"Base buildings have also been redeveloped, world-leading smart pass technology introduced and fast lifts installed, which mean skiers get the maximum number of runs a day," he said.

The 2011 ski season is also underway at Cardrona Alpine Resort, in the Cardrona Valley, between Queenstown and Wanaka. For the first time in the ski areaís history, it had to rely solely on snowmaking to open.

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