The Swiss are training the first generation of Mandarin-speaking ski instructors, part of a campaign to lure newly rich from China to come play in the snow -- with help from Bollywood.
ENGELBERG — The young woman in the blue and white parka is the morning's hero.
During her very first ski lesson, Ellen Wang did not dither long once she got her skis on. Sure, all the rental equipment at this winter resort in central Switzerland felt strange, and she could have been distracted with smart phone videos and snowball fights.
But she stayed focused. And now, she is the only one standing at the highest point on the slope, having navigated the T-bar atop the beginner hill. Looking down at her companions, who seem very small from up here, Wang shouts, “Here I come!”
Down at the bottom, the charming twentysomething computer specialist from Beijing boasts about her run — with no falls. “I’m the best,” she declares with a grin.
This is just one snapshot of a 10-day trip to Switzerland with a group of 15 fellow Chinese tourists. They've been to Zurich, Geneva and Bern, to the spa town of Leukerbad, and took a boat cruise on Lake Lucerne.
But the ski leg is a top highlight on this Swiss winter holiday, even if there is a fundamental problem for this group of novices: Chris Oldaker, their British-born ski instructor, does not speak Chinese. “Until now, there’s never been a problem,” he says. “German and English were perfectly fine to communicate with Russians, Scandinavians and Germans. I’m not prepared for Mandarin!”
None of the Chinese in the group speaks English. So exchanges between Chris and the group are limited to a kind of pidgin and internationally understood hand signs such as high-fives and thumbs ups
All of this will make Yi Li a very sought-after young man.
The 28-year-old from Hebei province, northwest of Beijing, was a soccer pro in England for several years until an injury forced him to to switch to skiing. He is now one of eight young Chinese selected by Swiss tourism officials for four months of training to become a certified ski instructor.
The idea behind the project is incredibly simple: With its 1.3 billion inhabitants, China constitutes a massive future market, as the country’s aspirational middle class are eager to know all the best the world has to offer — but with targeted Chinese services.
In 2012, Chinese travelers accounted for 865,000 overnight stays in Switzerland, and annual growth rates are running at 25% to 40%.
Back in China, Yi Li and his colleagues want to be active in the ski business. Several ski areas have been created not far from Beijing over the past few years, and that’s where the instructors will be plugging Switzerland, widely recognized as the global capital for winter sports.
Engelberg ski resort — Photo: Trevor Armstrong via Instagram
Yi did not end up in Engelberg just be chance. Throughout Asia, the resort has become famous because it is the setting for many Bollywood feature films. For years the highest number of overnight stays by Indians in Switzerland has been here.
In 2012, a Chinese investor bought up the time-honored but fusty Europaeischer Hof Hotel in the middle of the village. He intends to turn it into a five-star venue with direct access to the spa gardens.
Since then Engelberg has been preparing for an expected flood of Chinese guests who will need special care, which is where Yi comes in.
“A lucky draw” is how Dierk Beisel describes the new ski instructor from the People’s Republic. The managing director of the Engelberg Titlis ski school praises Yi for his enthusiasm and quick learning. After passing another exam, Yi can now officially call himself a “children’s ski instructor.”
“But we can put him to full use for adults, too,” Beisel adds.
Around noon this latest group takes the cable lift up Mount Titlis. Before going on a glacier walk, some of the group members hit the photo studio and don dirndls and other apparel from traditional Swiss costumes for photos — the women carrying a bouquet or on accordion, the men with at Alphorn or with a weapon slung over their shoulder.
Because Chinese skiers are an unusual sight on the Titlis, Dierk Beisel has come up the mountain to check out the scene. He photographs the group as they snap selfies, and before long they’re all exchanging email addresses.