ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) - China’s snow sports industry is pinning its hopes on people like Shi Haoping, 32, who takes to the slopes to de-stress from his job as head of an online education company.
“This is such a physical activity, it relieves the pressure for me,” Shi said while taking a break from snowboarding at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Zhangjiakou, not far from where several Winter Olympics events will be held in February.
(To see a picture package of China's ski resorts, please open reut.rs/3os2F87 in a web browser.)
Shi was seated with his wife, Ding Yaohui, who works for a video production company, and their Shiba Inu dog, who had made the three-hour drive with them from Beijing. Music from an X Games snowboarding event thumped in the background.
“First we learned skiing,” Shi said. “Then last year we took up snowboarding, because it looks more trendy and cool.”
China hopes hosting the Games will springboard the country towards becoming a winter sports destination and will help deliver on a target set by President Xi Jinping to get 300 million Chinese involved in winter sports, with an aim to build a 1 trillion yuan ($157 billion) industry.
The stakes are high, and not just for China, as the global snow sports industry looks to rising incomes in the world’s most populous nation to offset what industry data shows to be stagnating participation in traditional ski markets.
China wants to build a thriving winter sports ecosystem, from success on the slopes - some of its best Olympic medal hopes are in the freestyle ski and snowboard events - to world-class resorts and the manufacture of equipment to service them.
The country has more than 700 ski areas but the industry is highly fragmented and most are tiny. Only about 20 would be considered destination resorts, including Thaiwoo and the nearby Genting Resort Secret Garden, which will host the Olympic freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions.
With snowfall scarce in many parts of China, including the winter sports hub of Zhangjiakou, the necessity of water for snowmaking here limits intensive resort development.
Industry insiders say the longer-term challenge is to ensure the full experience is enjoyable - from the renting of gear to the quality and standards of teaching, and the après-ski social activities - so more beginners want to spend the time and money to become regulars.
Justin Downes, president of Axis Leisure and an adviser to the Games organisers, said the Chinese ski industry is unrecognisable from when he arrived in 2007.
Even so, he added, it takes years to build a ski culture and the infrastructure around Chinese ski areas, many in farming and mining areas, has yet to be developed.
“If you go to a ski resort in Switzerland or in Canada, you’re walking into a community of people that have been there for generations,” the Canadian said.
Skiing and the Games are transforming parts of Zhangjiakou’s once-impoverished Chongli district. Chongli was connected two years ago with Beijing by a high-speed train that takes less than an hour.
Before COVID-19 jolted the industry, skier visits in China doubled from 10.3 million in 2014, the year before Beijing was awarded the Games, to a peak of 20.9 million in 2019.
On a five-year average, China ranks eighth globally in skier visits, according to the 2021 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism by industry expert Laurent Vanat, with the United States, Austria and France making up the top three.
China’s government is all in. Last month, a ministry said it was “urgent” to promote production standards for equipment such as snow makers, snow grooming machines and all-terrain snow vehicles, an industry dominated by European and American manufacturers.
Chinese private equity firm Hillhouse Capital, whose founder Zhang Lei is an avid snowboarder, owns half of the Chinese business of Vermont-based Burton Snowboards, the industry pioneer.
Three years ago, Chinese athletic wear giant Anta Sports, a sponsor of the Beijing Games, led a group that paid 4.6 billion euros for Finland’s Amer Sports, whose portfolio includes venerable European ski equipment brands Atomic and Salomon, as well as high-end Canadian outerwear brand Arc’teryx.
‘I HAVE MONEY’
On a recent early season day at Thaiwoo, which has a Western-style resort village with a brewpub and shops for global brands such as Bogner and Patagonia as well as Chinese snowboard maker Nobaday, the crowd was well-attired.
Unlike in the United States and Europe, where skiers are predominant, China’s snow sports market skews towards boarders like Anthony Zhang, 31, who works in finance and was decked out in 15,000 yuan worth of gear including a baby-blue snowsuit and pink snowboard for his first time on genuine slopes.
“It’s very expensive. It’s not just equipment - it’s a big expense to hire a trainer. I take classes in an indoor simulator in Beijing, and each class costs several hundred yuan,” he said.
The expense is not a deterrent, however.
“I have money,” Zhang said, laughing.
$1 = 6.37 Chinese yuan renminbi)
Reporting by Tony Munroe; Editing by Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle
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