Reader, beware: If you don't like heights, this sport is not for you.
On the other hand, if you can see yourself strapped into a safety harness, suspended from a steel line, up where eagles soar, flying at speeds of 80 kilometres or more an hour, you'll love zip lining.
A Canadian firm, Ziptrek Ecotours, was the first to bring this adrenaline-packed experience to North America, in 2002. (Costa Rica pioneered the use of zip lines as a tourist attraction in the early 1990s.) Now, the Whistler-based company has opened its second location, in the popular resort destination of Queenstown, New Zealand. For about $90, the zip liner gets a two-hour flight that includes stopovers at viewing platforms set up among the trees.
"We knew at the outset that we wanted to have a handful of world-class locations," says David Udow, who founded the company with his friend Charles Steele. "We did not want to be everywhere."
Queenstown, the self-described "world capital of adventure tourism," is a magnet for people who like their sports extreme: skiing, bungee jumping, tandem skydiving, and now zip lining. "It's a very similar market to Whistler in a lot of ways," says Udow, a fact that convinced the partners that Queenstown was the right overseas market.
Getting approval from the different levels of government proved to be one of the biggest barriers: Not only was zip lining a new concept in New Zealand but Udow and Steele wanted to operate on a piece of land that environmental groups and local business owners were determined to protect. "There were numerous departments within the various agencies that don't deal directly with one another," says Udow. "In some cases, this meant doing the same or similar work multiple times."
After four years of intense negotiation and consultation with stakeholders, the partners were finally given the go-ahead, although not before the lengthy approval process had added about 25% to the cost of the project. The capital costs associated with constructing the site and setting up six zip lines pushed the total tab into the "low millions" of dollars, says Udow. "Getting the great locations takes time. You can get the mediocre ones in a minute, but the great ones are harder to come by."
The Queenstown site opened in December, 2009, at the start of New Zealand's summer season. "One of the appealing things on the business side is that the [Canadian and New Zealand]seasons are opposite," says Udow. "Although we are a year-round operation in both locations, the summer months tend to be quite a bit busier than the winter months on average." The partners were able to send a team of 12 employees from Whistler to New Zealand in December to help get the new operation off the ground.
In its first summer of operation, revenue from Ziptrek's Queenstown location measured up well against Whistler's opening season. Now, the partners are eyeing expansion into other friendly skies. They have begun the approval process in more than 20 locations around the world, says Udow, and he expects one or two of them will open before the end of next year.