In 10 years, skiing has exploded in China. The Winter Olympic Games in Beijing and the growing middle class have served as springboards for this craze. Are we seeing the beginnings of a great skiing nation or should we put on the breaks?
GUANGZHOU — Chunli traded in her bare feet for snowboarding boots: "I saw some videos on Douyin [TikTok in Chinese] and it made me want to try it. It looks so cool!"
With her board between her mittens, the young student valiantly heads for the snowy slopes. In Douyin, it is -6°C (21°F) all year long and the snow is always there. No wind or sun. As for the mountains, they are only displayed on the walls.
In Guangzhou, in the south of China, people are used to palm trees, tropical storms and temperatures over 20°C (68°F) in winter. But they can enjoy skiing in the Sunac Snow Park, one of the world's largest indoor ski areas. Covering an area the size of eight soccer fields, the snow park has five runs for all levels and a chairlift. The most experienced skiers can take on a 460-meter long run. Adjacent to a shopping mall, the Sunac Snow Park has had more than two million visits since it opened three years ago.
"I come here every Tuesday with my husband," says Li Jia, a resident of nearby Shenzhen. "We are training for a trip to a real ski resort in northern China."
With a brand new snowboard, helmets, goggles and the latest outfits, Jia has already spent several thousand yuan on her own equipment. For the others, the day costs 568 yuan (almost 90 dollars), including clothes and equipment.
"Ski domes" have expanded exponentially in recent years in China. The country already has 36 of them, including the three largest in the world. Six more are under construction, including one in Shanghai that is said to surpass all others in size.
Wu Bin, author of a white paper on China's ski industry, says, "The country's indoor ski resort projects are growing explosively and far outnumber the existing indoor parks."
Mountains cover half of China's territory, but snow-covered massifs are rare and often far from major cities. Hence the development of indoor slopes, such as in Guangzhou.
China has set itself the goal of converting 300 million Chinese into snow and ice sports lovers
"Since there is no snow in Guangzhou, I can only try it at the Sunac Snow Park," explains Chunli, before setting off on a track with almost no slope, a stuffed turtle the size of a pillow around his buttocks in case of a fall.
Skiing started in China in the mid-1990s when the northern city of Harbin hosted the Asian Winter Games. But it is only in the last 10 years that the practice has really taken off. The Winter Olympics in Beijing have had an accelerating effect, with winter sports becoming a national issue pushed by the country's highest authorities.
Known for its long-term planning, the communist regime immediately published a "snow plan" for 2016-2025. It is said that winter sports will represent a market of one trillion yuan (156 billion dollars) in 2025. And to train tomorrow's skiers, the authorities have asked 5,000 schools to integrate winter sports in their teaching.
Resorts created in record time
Aware of the interests in terms of health, economy and Olympic medals, Xi Jinping's China has also set itself the goal of converting 300 million Chinese into snow and ice sports lovers — a colossal figure but one that encompasses all kinds of activities. In a very timely manner, the National Bureau of Statistics announced on January 13 that this goal has been reached, with 346 million new enthusiasts since Beijing won the bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2015 — becoming the first city ever to host the summer and winter events. While some professionals are doubtful about the figures, they maintain the official message of a popular fever around the Olympics and winter sports.
Following Beijing’s winning bid for the Olympic Games, ski resorts — sometimes requiring billions of dollars of investment — have emerged in record time. The rapid construction was felt especially in the district of Chongli, around 110 miles to the northwest of Beijing. Over the last three years, the small city has experienced the regular disruption of building sites. A new highway, marked with the Olympic rings, has arrived, as well as a fast train making Chongli less than an hour from Beijing and its 21 million inhabitants.
On the surrounding mountains, there's no natural snow but windmills and solar panels for what Beijing wants to present as the green Games. The potato fields have been replaced by ski slopes and hotels. And some farmers have even become instructors. One in five people living in Chongli now has a job related to winter sports.
Synthetic slopes on the rise
China has seen the number of ski resorts grow from 200 to more than 700 in the space of a decade. But many are tiny. Laurent Vanat, a Swiss consultant who works for the country's resorts, says, "Most are still poorly equipped and are more like beginner ski areas, with one or two magic carpets [a moving walkway].”
Three quarters of the resorts offer less than 100 meters of vertical drop. Vanat says that only 25 are close to Western standards and only a limited number can be considered as real ski resorts. However, this small circle has grown in recent years, especially in the Beijing area. In cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, ski simulators — usually used for training professional athletes — and synthetic slopes are booming, with more than a million skiers a year.
"I want my child to be healthy and learn new skills," says Juan, whose daughter regularly comes to take lessons on the simulator at the Snow51 store in a shopping mall in the heart of Shanghai. Snow 51's motto is "to bring the dream of alpine winter to China.” Even far from the mountains, Chinese city dwellers can learn about skiing.
Before the emergence of COVID-19, more than 13 million Chinese had put on skis, about 1% of the population.
Skiing in China is consumed more as an entertainment than as a sport
"We are now almost back to the levels before the epidemic," says Wu Bin, author of the white paper on China's ski industry. The development of skiing in China goes hand in hand with the explosion of the middle class and the fourfold increase in disposable income in 10 years.
Han Yuanjun, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Tourism, says, “This corresponds perfectly to the expectations of a category of the population in search of a new way of life and leisure.”
The mountains are also an escape from the pollution of the big cities. At Thaiwoo, a resort near Beijing where Club Med is about to open a village, the information panel gives both the temperature and the pollution index.
Millennials are fans of winter sports
“Winter sports are appreciated for their health and well-being [benefits]," says Matthieu Mellul of the 65DB agency in Shanghai, which specializes in monitoring Chinese social media platforms. “The idea of reconnecting with nature is quite present among young urbanites.”
Chinese millennials make up the bulk of skiers. On the ultra-trendy app Xiaohonghsu ("Little Red Book"), ski-related queries are exploding. Online tutorials are particularly popular. Skiing — and snowboarding in particular — is in fashion among Chinese youth who are always looking for new experiences. In December, "millennials were the driving force behind bookings at ski resorts," notes the tour operator Ctrip.com.
An hour's drive from Beijing, the Nanshan snow stadium fills up on sunny winter weekends. Among the best equipped in the country, the two kilometers of slopes rising from the earthy hills were visited by 420,000 people last season. Young people come during the day, often taking the organized shuttle from the center of the capital. Most of them stay on the easiest slopes: skiing is still new for many Chinese, even if the number of good skiers is increasing with time. And many of them pay more attention to taking photos for their WeChat accounts or enjoying the sun while eating a sausage skewer or a noodle soup than to really go down the slopes from morning to night.
Skiing in China is consumed more as an entertainment than as a sport requiring regular practice.
"A Chinese person will want to discover skiing, but this discovery may only last four hours," explains Edouard Dovillaire, director of operations and business development for the Poma Group in Beijing. The ski resorts offer packages for only two hours of skiing. Once the visitor has purchased the precious pass, he or she passes through counters where they pick up a helmet, outfit, boots and skis in a huge reception center that looks like a locker room.
"It's very simple and well organized," says Chunli, who arrived in a skirt and T-shirt in the Guangzhou ski dome.
Pupils practice skiing in a resort in Altay, in northwestern China
The springboard of the Olympics to build customer loyalty
The Chinese market is still very young and, on paper, the potential remains enormous. China hopes that the Olympic Games will serve as a springboard to make the world's most populous country a leader in winter sports. The stakes are not only high for the country, but for a global industry facing the decline of its traditional markets.
While experts remain skeptical about Beijing's goal of eventually putting 120 million Chinese on skis (almost 10% of the population), the prospect of having 30 to 40 million skiers seems more realistic in the medium term. This would already place China among the world's leading nations.
David Guigaz, Asia director for Club Med, says, “Beyond the sheer volume of skiers, the real challenge is to build their loyalty so that they don't stop at a first experience of a few hours during the day. The customer return rate is still low, but it's exploding.”
The enthusiasm hoped for by the authorities during the two pre-Olympic years has been wiped out by COVID-19
There are many challenges to make skiing in China a long-term success and to prevent the momentum from falling back like in Japan and South Korea. Koreans did not catch the ski fever at all after the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics: "Over there, skiing was sold as entertainment and quickly went out of fashion," says consultant Laurant Vana, noting a similar risk for China.
Learning is a major issue because the first experiences are often disappointing. It’s impossible to replicate the traditional methods of teaching alpine skiing over a week, as is done in the Alps, with Chinese skiers in search of immediate satisfaction and autonomy.
Price is another issue. Except in tiny resorts, skiing remains an expensive activity for the Chinese middle class. If resorts want to keep visitors for several days, they will also have to expand their ski areas. But snowfall is scarce in many parts of China and water resources are very limited. Extreme temperatures also dampen the spirits of even the most daring skiers: It is not uncommon to ski at -25°C (-13°F) in the country’s northern resorts.
While there was strong competition from European countries including Austria and France to invest in the Chinese market, the pandemic has threatened the industry. Benoît Robert of Cluster Montagne, an association of resort developers, says, "The enthusiasm hoped for by the authorities during the two pre-Olympic years has been wiped out by COVID-19. Many announcements were not acted upon.”
Many large resorts were initially real estate projects. And today, some projects are frozen or have fallen through. The market is still finding its place. After the initial curiosity, the Sunac Snow Park in Guangzhou is now struggling to fill up. During our visit in the middle of the week, the counter showed only 166 visitors at midday. The same is true of the Chengdu park, which is far from the city center, prompting Club Med and the French Ski School to review their partnership.
It is difficult to draw hasty conclusions. In France, skiing really took off after the 1968 Olympic Games in Grenoble. And on the scale of a country of 1.4 billion inhabitants, even a "small" market remains an important market. Not to mention that the mountains are not just about winter sports. To make investments and fixed costs profitable, resorts must also be able to operate year-round.
Cloé Pecherand, export manager for the Abest design and project management firm, says, "If the excitement and opportunities around the Beijing Olympics did not live up to our expectations, the prospect of summer mountain is much more promising."
Just across the street from Guangzhou's Sunac Snow Park, the Chinese property developer has opened a huge water park. There’s something to suit all tastes.