Wakatipu residents will know that Aspen, Colorado, is one of Queenstown’s sister cities.
Both resorts are endowed with great natural beauty. Both evolved from mineral booms, Queenstown with the discovery of gold near Arrowtown in 1862 and Aspen with silver in 1879.
Queenstown evolved as a holiday destination in the 1930s and skiing developed steadily after the Second World War. Aspen evolved in the 1940s when investors decided to develop a ski resort. Since then, both have based their growth and prosperity on tourism, backstopped in large measure by a buoyant ski industry.
Today, the Wakatipu has a resident population of about 16,000 – Aspen about 6000.
Beyond these similarities, Queenstown and Aspen have pursued quite different approaches to their economic and social development.
After the war, a wealthy Chicago industrialist called Walter Peapcke came to Aspen. He had a vision that it should develop not only as a ski resort but as a place of special character where, through the enjoyment of art, music and education, the mind, body and spirit could flourish.
Peapcke was a founding participant in the Aspen Ski Corporation in 1946. In 1950, he established the Aspen Institute, which has come to include the Aspen Music Festival and School and the Aspen Center for Physics.
The Aspen Center of Environmental Studies opened in 1974 and in 1993 the city opened a 500-seat concert hall to critical acclaim. Aspen now hosts the widest array of arts and cultural events in Colorado.
According to the Aspen Historical Society – from where I obtained the above information – “Aspen’s uniqueness reflects the great natural beauty of our valley, the diversity of our citizens, our outdoor activities and athletic endeavors, and our deep commitment to the arts, humanities, and sciences.
“Together, these enrich our sense of community and enhance the quality of life for residents, visitors, and generations to come.”
Aspen is also progressive in its development of a “new energy economy”.
It views climate change as a critical threat to its tourism-based economy and way of life. For example, how will climate change affect the length and quality of the ski season? What are the options to further diversify Aspen’s economy as it adapts to climate change?
Aspen is pursuing several renewable energy initiatives. It is working to become the first city in Colorado with an infrastructure for producing hydrogen to power a fleet of fuel-cell buses and cars.
Queenstown has evolved without a clearly enunciated vision.
An opportunistic approach to tourism development – the basis of our local economy – has been generally supported by the community. Our principal tourism activities, skiing and adventure sports, are largely youthful pursuits.
We should also recognise that Queenstown has a substantial and diverse older population. They have interests, too, as well as contributing a large component of residential rates. Their quality of life, aside from our pristine landscape, depends on locally available, age-appropriate medical facilities, a safe, clean living environment, recreational facilities and opportunities for cultural and educational pursuits.
As we look to the future and how we want Queenstown to evolve, we could well look to Aspen for guidance on what we can become.
In my view, it’s time for Queenstown to outgrow its party-town image.
Our diverse resident population deserves better, as do our more discerning tourists. We should embrace a new sense of excellence by a commitment to strengthen the arts, humanities and sciences. We can build on the exemplary initiatives of Eion Edgar and the Queenstown Resort College and Michael Hill with his International Violin Competition.
While tourism will remain the linchpin of our economy, we should diversify towards greater cultural enlightenment and a greener economy.
Such a transformation would need real vision and proactive leadership by Queenstown Lakes District Council.
For starters, I’d suggest QLDC revamp the single-focus Destination Queenstown into a plural-focus “Vision Queenstown”.
VQ would have a broad mandate to advise our community and QLDC on a roadmap to excellence.
Lake Hayes property owner Ralph Hanan is a former World Bank economist