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‘Most exciting outdoor market in the world’

Ren Xiaojin/Zhang Yu
Updated: Jan 1,2018 7:32 AM     China Daily

Children play ice hockey at the Bird’s Nest, or the National Stadium, in Beijing on Dec 23.[Photo/China Daily]

China’s snow and ice sport industry is growing rapidly in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in 2022.

According to the China National Tourism Administration, the country is expecting to see over 300 million people involved in winter sports by 2022, creating 1 trillion yuan ($152 billion) market.

Indeed, 2022 has already brought changes to the local economies of host cities.

Take Zhangjiakou in Hebei province as an example. Since the prefecture-level city was selected as the major venue for the Games, flocks of people have been rushing in to experience its snow resorts and the white slopes.

According to the local tourism bureau, its Chongli district, with a population of 126,000 people, has seen 3.5 million tourists in 2016, generating 2.5 billion yuan in revenue, up 27 percent year-on-year.

Over the last two snow seasons in 2016 and 2017, the district has hosted 2.67 million tourists, of which 90 percent came for winter sports.

“Thanks to winter sports, Chongli has been recognized by the country and even the world,” said Zhao Zan, head of the district.

The snow sports industry has also helped support local employment. One-sixth of its population has been involved in snow sports or related fields concerning tourism, hospitality or food.

“We used to see visitors only in winter,” said Liu Suying, 53, who operates a cottage lodge in Chongli. “Now, we’ve had visitors throughout the year and our annual income has doubled to 100,000 yuan.”

According to the local government’s financial report, in the past, over 75 percent of the local tax revenue came from the mining sector. In 2016, however, the tertiary sector, particularly snow sports and tourism, has become the major source of tax revenue, accounting for 58.3 percent in the first three quarters.

Chongli has also become one of the country’s largest snow resorts with seven established snow venues, with the latest one, Galaxy Ski Resort, launched toward the end of 2017.

Authorities of host cities have been striving to create the necessary infrastructure for the 2022 Games. Private and foreign investors are also tapping into the snow economy, as they foresee the Games are going to bring about robust growth of the business.

“We’ve seen a growing number of Chinese, especially millennials, who are interested in snow sports and snow scenery,” said Maria Yang, development director for the China market, the tourism bureau of Alberta, a snow-rich province in Canada.

Parents and their children enjoy ice-based recreational activities at Bird’s Nest, or the National Stadium, on Dec 23.[Photo/China Daily]

Being an established snow destination, Alberta is eager to attract more Chinese tourists to try its top-grade natural ski slopes and to boost its local tourism.

“In the past years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase — about 32 percent — from the Chinese snow sports lovers to Alberta,” she said.

Snow slopes in China are also attracting an increasing number of skiers. Launched in 2013, Genting Resort Secret Garden, built by Malaysian resort and casino operator Genting Group, has been selected as freestyle skiing and snowboarding venue for the Winter Olympics. It is also one of the most visited ski centers in Hebei.

During the snow season, over 2,500 visitors drive to the resort every day to test the world-class slopes. The resort is sparing no effort to prepare for the Olympics and to meet the growing demand for its services.

Benno Nager, chief operating officer of the resort, said the ski center is more than doubling the current 40 slopes to 90 while adding six cable cars to meet the demand in the next two years.

“We’ve attracted enough tourists and we are able to provide them with places to stay overnight,” said Nager. “But we can’t leave them on the crowded slopes.”

The resort is also expanding its hospitality capacity from 825 beds to over 10,000 beds.

“We need to not only prepare for the Games but to handle the high volume of tourists attracted by the Games,” he said.

“After the high-speed train services start between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, we expect to see more tourists to Chongli throughout the year.”

In November 2017 alone, Genting has hosted 19,989 people, up 10 percent year-on-year.

But the opportunity of hosting the Winter Olympics has not come Genting’s way easily. Zhao Qiong, market director of the resort, said the company has been preparing for the Games for over a decade.

“If you rewind ten years, you would realize the head of Genting Group had already sensed the potential of Chongli as a host venue for the Winter Olympics,” said Zhao. “We picked Chongli rather than Northeast China because Chongli is closer to Beijing. After the high-speed trains start to run, Chongli can be reached within one hour from Beijing.

“Before we started to build the resort in 2007, many senior staff of the group didn’t support the idea because they said Chinese people were not interested in the Winter Olympics and the ski industry was not popular. They also said such plan was like daydreaming.”

But now, the potential of Zhangjiakou to become the country’s snow sports capital has been widely recognized. Even 3-time World Championship Jeremy Bloom acknowledges this. He recently visited the place with his business associates, including ski resort software providers, training providers and equipment manufacturers, to scout for investment opportunities in Zhangjiakou.

“Zhangjiakou is the fastest-growing and most exciting outdoor market in the world right now,” said Bloom. During his trip, he and his team signed contracts, which are part of 13 cooperation projects worth 40.6 billion yuan with the local government.

He also raised the question many investors in the snow sports industry are concerned about now — how to turn first-timers into true lovers of snow sports?

“The only way to capitalize on a growing market and build for the long-term is by providing incredible experiences to visitors, and I’m not talking about athletes but everyday consumers,” he said.

“I’ve spent my entire life in the skiing and snowboarding world and have watched people fall in love, and fall out of love, with the sport.”

Chinese investors share the same concerns.

Wu Bin, general manager of Beijing Carving Ski Equipment Co Ltd, said that in other countries with a mature snow sports industry, people will see snow sports as part of their lifestyle. But China is still at the stage of promoting such sports. Typically, skiing and snowboarding are included as part of a one-off tour package.

According to Wu, in 2016, 78 percent of skiers were newbies, down 2 percent from 2015.

“How to turn those first-timers into regular players and finally make snow sports part of their lifestyle — that is what we need to address. From the supply side viewpoint, we need everyone in the industry chain to provide better service and give those users better experience to maintain their interest,” said Wu.