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China is Building a Winter Sports Culture on the Backs of Luxury Skiers

Skiing is growing among China's wealthiest. But is it growing fast enough to make Beijing's Winter Olympics bid plausible?
Yabuli Sun Mountain. Photo via Creative Commons

Last month, hundreds of people walked through the doors of a 5-star hotel in downtown Beijing, a few minutes walk from Tiananmen Square, to attend Ski & Style, an extravagant ski trade fair. Over the course of three days, fancy brands from all over the world made sales pitches to wealthy Chinese guests: resorts, high-end equipment, luxury brands like Bogner. Champagne-sipping VIPs took in a ski-themed runway fashion show.


China isn't competitive in Olympic skiing, nor is there enough natural snow in the country for a real ski culture to develop, but China's rich have discovered skiing. And rich is the key word as companies from Switzerland, France, Canada, Iceland, and Japan are trying to push the ski lifestyle and experience in China. They hope that some of China's nearly 100 million overseas traveling tourists will put skiing next on their to-do list.

And if there is indeed more interest in skiing in the country, it'll be of great help to Beijing's 2022 Winter Olympics bid. The IOC, after all, may be skeptical of Beijing's lack of a winter sports culture. And for good reason. According to the China Ski Association, there were about 5 million skiers in China in 2010. The expectation was that by now, there would be 20 million. But nearly all of China's skiers are beginners who don't even buy equipment, and there are barely any Chinese manufacturers. If international destination resorts are successful in selling the idea of a ski vacation and experience to the wealthy Chinese, it would go a long way toward generating some buzz for the Beijing bid. After all, skiing, with its expensive equipment and travel demands, is not exactly a working class sport primed for grassroots growth.

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After Yabuli Sun Mountain, a hotel in Heilongjiang province, invested $161 million in 2009 for a ski makeover of their resort—importing cable from France, snow makers from the U.S. and piste-bashing machines from Germany—the Chinese government followed suit with reportedly another $400 million investment to make the resort the base for their national ski team. But there weren't immediate returns. In Sochi, only two Chinese athletes qualified for alpine skiing, and their best result was a second-to-last place finish. "[At this time], you can't even name a downhill skier," said Li Sheng, whose sports marketing company has worked with the Chinese Olympic Committee and Chinese Winter Sports Federation.


But the challenge in getting better at skiing is that most people in China don't stick with the sport, often after a bad first-time experience. This makes it hard for China to build the foundation necessary to eventually become a top level competitor in skiing. It also makes it hard for international resorts to convince rich Chinese to spend their money on ski trips abroad when the bunny hill back home was already too much for them. But now that these destinations are trying to woo the affluent of China through a ski lifestyle—the mountain-top restaurants and the fur gear—they may be on to something, and one of the byproducts of promoting multi-million dollar tourism could be a boost in China's winter sports culture.

"In China, ski has been promoted through the angle of the sport. What we wanted to show is that ski before all was a destination, and is a destination," Delphine Lignières, the man behind the Ski & Style event, told luxury-retail website Jing Daily.

At Ski & Style, presenters from resorts in the Alps, Whistler, and elsewhere, sold their pedestrian pathways [for the beginners who can't ski back], their Mandarin-speaking instructors, and their presence on Weibo and WeChat, China's favored social networks. The Davos Klosters Resort in the Swiss Alps, for example, has a ski package just for Chinese ski enthusiasts, that includes beginner lessons from a Chinese instructor. France's luxury resort Val d'Isere promotes the fact that you don't have to stick to skiing. They offer sledding, snowshoe hiking, and horse carriage riding. Chinese guests are expected to be among the top three clientele at Japan's Niseko Ski Resort in the next five years.

Lignières says that the biggest consumers of the ski industry in China are the 20 to 30 year olds. "They go among friends to enjoy skiing in Chongli or Changbaishan. Tomorrow, they will go overseas."

If China is to have a future in competitive skiing, they will also need to come back.