Old Version

Climbing a Slippery Slope

China’s winter sports scene is getting a big boost thanks to the successful 2022 Winter Olympics bid, but it is starting from nothing

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

Liao Jingsheng was a real estate developer in Beijing, when in 2008, he got bitten by the skiing bug. He started making regular trips to a ski resort in Chongli, a small town some 200 kilometers northwest of Beijing in neighboring Hebei Province. “The ski resort at Chongli was the most advanced in the neighborhood around at that time,” Liao told NewsChina. 
However, Liao recalls that the small resort town remained a poverty-stricken place until quite recently. At least until 2010, the roads in Chongli were muddy dirt roads and it was common to see wandering pigs on the rural streets. There was still only one small government-run hotel for visitors. Due to the limited accommodation on offer, ski enthusiasts could only stay in farmers’ homes after a whole day’s skiing. There was no place to take a proper shower. 
The real changes came in 2013 when the city of Zhangjiakou, which jointly administers Chongli, along with Beijing, successfully bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. In 2014, the government strategy to coordinate the development of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province also boosted development in Hebei. According to officially released statistics from Chongli, during the snow season in 2015, Chongli received over 2.05 million tourists and took in a total income of over 1.4 billion yuan (US$21.5m). 
Investment poured into the small town. According to the local tourism bureau, in 2016 Chongli welcomed 2.67 million tourists who bought the town a total income of 1.89 billion yuan (US$27.7m) – an increase of 22.5 percent and 22.7 percent on the last ski season. 
Liao Jingsheng also realized the business opportunity and started to invest in the resort. In 2015, his hotel in the center of the town opened. In the next two years, he watched as hotels, restaurants and ski equipment stores sprang up all over the town. Most of the investors are, like Liao himself, from Beijing.  

The first ski resort was developed in 1996, and now there are seven ski areas and more than 300 hotels in Chongli. The town has seen the development of the Chinese ski industry from a competitive sport to an elite sport and now it has spread further to wider popularization. 

Initial Attempt 

Shan Zhaojian, China’s first national ski champion in 1957, was director of the ski department at the General Administration of Sport in the 1990s. In 1996, in order to promote skiing to the general public, Shan thought of building a ski resort near Beijing. The favorable geographical situation and climate suitable for skiing attracted his attention. With an average temperature of minus 12 Celsius in winter, he thought there could be 150 days of good skiing. And although it might not be as superb as the conditions in the resorts of northeastern China, Chongli benefits from its location close to Beijing. 
Shan and another investor Guo Jing came together to set up the Saibei Ski Resort, Chongli’s first. There was only one run, just 300 meters long. Conditions were quite primitive, and without a ski lift or cable car, skiers had to be driven by jeep to the top of the slope. 
China is a latecomer to ski culture. Most Chinese ski resorts are in the northeast, a region famous for freezing winters. This is where the national ski team has its training center, but it wasn’t until Harbin, in Heilongjiang Province, hosted the Third Asian Winter Games in 1996 that China’s first private commercial ski resort, the Yabuli Windmill Hotel, was set up.
Ski resorts started taking advantage of snow machines after 1999 in and around Beijing, and within two years, six new ski resorts were set up around the capital.
Chongli also took advantage of new opportunities. In 2003, Luo Hong, president of Holiland, one of the largest bakery chains in China, invested in the state of the art Wanlong Ski Resort in Chongli, drawing in ski enthusiasts from Beijing. Other new resorts followed.  

‘Nowhere Place’  

International investors also saw potential in Chongli. VXL Group, a Malaysia-based international tourism real estate developer broke ground on the Genting Resort Secret Garden in Chongli in 2008. The resort, which opened in 2013, included a five-star hotel and 35 ski runs. Future plans call for 88 ski runs with a combined length of 70 kilometers, as well as developing conference facilities and year-round attractions.
Zhao Qiong from the VXL Group told NewsChina that when he first came to Chongli in 2013, “everything was isolated in this nowhere place.” The major attraction, he said, was the potential market from Beijing, but despite allocating huge sums to the marketing budget, business remained stagnant. “We felt desperate at that time, and we realized it was very difficult to have the 20 million people in Beijing learn about skiing, which was quite new to them,” acknowledged Zhao.
But there have been real changes since 2015. According to the China Ski Industry White Paper released in early 2017, in 2010, there were 298 ski resorts in China, but this figure increased to 568 in 2015, and by 2016, there were 646. The number of people taking part in ski activities increased from 125 million in 2015 to 151 million in 2016.
Wu Bin, CEO of the Carving Ski Group and chief editor of the White Paper, told NewsChina that the recent rapid development of China’s ski industry has benefited both from rapid economic development and favorable government policies.
“Developing the ski industry depends on economic growth. According to international statistics, when GDP per capita reaches US$8,000, the tourism sector will see rapid development,” Wu said. It was in 2015 that average GDP per capita in the Chinese mainland amounted to that level, and in the same year, Beijing and Zhang-jiakou won the bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Genting Resort Secret Garden was chosen as the site of the 2022 Winter Olympics freestyle and snowboard events. It soon drew more visitors, with an increase of over 60 percent in the ski season from 2015 to 2016 than in the previous year. Right now, the resort can accommodate more than 200,000 guests in a single winter season, and as guests are quite high-spenders, income has increased significantly, Zhao said. On November 11, the first day of the 2017-18 season, more than 2,500 skiers came to the Genting Resort, up 50 percent year-on-year.
Other properties like Wanlong Ski Resort are also eyeing better prospects. The ski area in Wanlong expanded from 8,800 square meters to 17,000 square meters and the number of visitors increased by 2.5 times from 2015 to 2016. In December 2016, Fulong Group opened a high-end resort and still more other ski areas are under construction. 
The development of the ski industry in Chongli is a microcosm of the snow economy in China as well. According to the White Paper, over 60 percent of new resorts are in north or northwestern China. China’s sports governing body, the General Administration of Sport, released in late 2016 the Development Plan of Snow Sports (2016-2025), which stated that by 2020, the snow industry aims to reach the scale of 600 billion yuan (US$3.9b), and by 2050, it will further increase to 1,000 billion yuan (US$ 6.5b). 

Picking up Speed  

Contrary to the overall stagnant or even dwindling trend of the ski market globally, the ski industry is taking off in China. Industry insiders estimate 100 new ski resorts will be built annually – some 1,000 by 2022 and 1,400 by 2028. Ancillary industries are also benefitting. E-commerce giant Alibaba Group recorded that over 130 million people purchased skiing-related articles in 2016 from its online platforms. 
Laurent Vanat, an expert in the Swiss ski industry, expressed in the “2017 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism” that although China has the biggest national ski market, at this stage, “the size of the ski industry is not proportional.” 
During a recent interview with NewsChina, Vanat admitted so far only 25 ski resorts in China approach Western or Japanese standards. He explained that a modern ski resort needs lots of lifts – not just the simple surface lifts that pull skiers up as is the case in many ski areas in China – accommodations, restaurants, après-ski, leisure and shopping opportunities so guests can come for several days and enjoy a full experience in the resort. “Some large resorts in China, like those in Chongli, meet these criteria,” he continued: “But many very small resorts around Beijing are for the time being catering mostly to day visits by beginners, which is currently an important part of demand.”
Wu Bin also admitted that the small number of state-of-the-art ski resorts in China has lowered the effective supply of adequate facilities for the booming market. The result of having too many small resorts means that most people content themselves with a one-day leisure ski trip, and they will not transform into real enthusiasts that can sustain the market.
Zhang Yan, founder of the Magic Ski School, has been an instructor for years. He said that although the numbers of people trying skiing has increased, most will not become serious about the sport. A significant indicator is to evaluate the number of ski equipment sales. “In 2011, there were a total of 20,000 snowshoes sold in China, by 2016, the figure was 26,000. Considering the huge population of China, this meager increase is too low,” explained Zhang. “A sharp contrast to this is that in the 2016 ski season, the snowboard brand Burton sold 300,000 snow boards in the US, and over 100,000 snow boards in Japan, but in China a mere 3,000.” 

Looking Beyond the Snow  

More business operators are turning to developing a new model of “ski holiday” beyond the season-sensitive ski resort, as they compete to offer more diverse experiences beyond winter sports. Dalian Wanda Group invested more than 20 billion yuan (US$3b) in 2012 in the Wanda Changbaishan International Holiday Resort in northeastern China. Apart from 43 ski runs, the resort offers golf, hot springs and luxury hotels. “Since then, the ski industry in China has started a new era with new capital and a fresh development model,” commented Wu Bin.
Genting Resort in Chongli has organized snow-themed carnival activities. Zhao Qiong told the reporter that the majority of their guests are young Chinese born after 1980. They do not just come to ski, but to take advantage of all the entertainment options. “Through our activities, and the holding of some international games, we want to show our customers what ski culture is and how to improve the skiing as a sport,” Zhao said. 

Genting Resort has now introduced summer season activities including a marathon, mountain biking, camping and hiking. “Our ambition is to make Chongli one of the top 10 outdoor areas in the world,” Zhao said. 
Vanke Group, a leading real-estate company and urban development service provider in China, plans to open the Hanhailiang Ski Resort in Chongli in 2019. With an estimated total investment of 20 billion yuan (US$3b), the resort will boast 90 ski runs by completion and could receive a total of 250,000 skiers. 
A high-speed railway from Beijing to Zhangjiakou is scheduled to be completed by 2019, shortening the journey time to less than 50 minutes. Ding Changfeng, Vice President of Vanke Group envisions that in the future China will become the world’s largest ski market. “Chongli will definitely be the first place in China that can accommodate one million skiers,” he said.