Aspen Sister Cities celebrates a 30-year partnership with Queenstown

Connection part of Aspen’s longstanding history of international friendship

People join hands during a 1992 Aspen Sister Cities trip to Queenstown, New Zealand. Aspen and Queenstown officially became sister cities on March 19, 1992.
Jill Sheeley/Courtesy photo

“Aspen is an international city,” according to Pat Fallin, “because we have lots of international visitors.”

Fallin ought to know — she lived here for four decades and has deep roots with the Aspen Sister Cities organization.

Aspen also has a lot of international friends, in part thanks to its seven sister cities on four continents. Saturday marks a 30-year milestone for one of them — Queenstown, New Zealand — which formally became a sister city on March 19, 1992, by way of an official proclamation, according to Aspen Sister Cities president Jill Sheeley.

The partnership established Queenstown as Aspen’s fifth sister city, following Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; Chamonix, France; Davos, Switzerland; and Shimukappu, Japan. Bariloche, Argentina, and Abetone, Italy, would later join the ranks.

Sheeley has been the coordinator for Queenstown since 1992, when she was part of the delegation (along with husband, the late Don Sheeley, then the head of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, plus other citizens, Aspen officials and Sister Cities representatives) who visited that March.

“As we were flying back home, Len (Oleander, then-chairman of Aspen Sister Cities) pointed at me and said, ‘You will be in charge of Queenstown,’ and I have been ever since,” Sheeley said in a joint interview with Fallin.

“It was a lifetime appointment — she just didn’t know that,” Fallin joked.

These relationships manifest mostly in student exchanges and in visits from local leaders and delegations. Many an Aspen mayor and tourism official have traveled to meet with representatives of sister cities and vice versa, and aside from pandemic years, dozens of students cross borders every year to meet their contemporaries in other countries. Sheeley said Aspen Sister Cities is “doing a lot of finger crossing” in hopes that the in-person student exchanges can resume soon enough, pending travel restrictions.

The partnership has translated to other cultural connections, too. Queenstown sent two ski racers to compete in the 24 Hours of Aspen race in 1998 — the Kiwis came in fifth — and dispatched cooking school students to work at Gwyn’s High Alpine restaurant in Snowmass, Sheeley noted. Aspen students on exchange in the late 1990s attended the Queenstown Winter Festival, not such a far cry from Wintersköl.

(Then again, one student in 1999 did observe that the Winter Festival was “​​much more full in spirit and fun for everyone” compared to Aspen’s iteration, according to a snippet Sheeley included in a timeline.)

The idea — in Queenstown as in all of Aspen’s sister cities — was to create a partnership that would foster international friendship and also forge connections among resort communities all grappling with the same challenges.

“Airport problems, staffing problems, affordable housing for employees,” Fallin said. “We’re all faced with the same issues.”

Garmisch, as Aspen’s first sister city, served “as a base for how to deal with the impacts of tourism” at a time when Aspen was still emerging as a resort in the 1960s, Fallin noted. Gretl and Sepp Uhl were “instrumental” in launching that, according to Fallin.

It’s those shared experiences — plus the stalwart support of local leaders and the community — that have ensured the longevity of these Sister Cities, according to Fallin and Sheeley.

The connections are still strong three decades on for Queenstown and other sister cities established in the 1980s and 1990s; Davos, Chamonix and Shimukappu are in that bunch. Likewise for Garmisch (official since 1966) and newer inductions like Bariloche (signed off in 2002) and Abetone (sealed the deal in 2015).

“They’ve lasted a long time because we have a commonality with these cities,” Fallin said.