National boom sees more take to the slopes
Deep in the Altay Mountains in Northwest China, cave paintings on rocks depict skiers with a herd of animals running below them.
The paintings in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region have not been carbon dated, but Wang Bo, an archaeologist from the Xinjiang Museum, estimates that they are more than 10,000 years old.
“The pattern and paint used, and tools made of stones discovered in nearby caves, all suggest that the paintings could have been made by primitive people who used the cave as a shelter in the late Paleolithic Age,” he said in an earlier interview. Wang added that skis were used for hunting around the snow-covered region.
The paintings prompted a group of Chinese archaeologists to declare Altay prefecture the birthplace of skiing, challenging the International Ski Federation’s findings that skiing originated in Russia. Altay remains a haven for skiers. Now, however, they are not hunting for food but indulging in one of China’s most popular winter sports.
And while the cave paintings show that skiing may have originated in China, it is only in recent years that large numbers of Chinese have taken to the sport.
Tourism industry players attribute this interest to increased wealth and the government’s promotion of winter sports ahead of Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“The (standard) of living in China has improved tremendously and people can afford to (spend more on) leisure activities,” said Laurent Vanat, a ski industry researcher in Geneva, Switzerland.
Beijing’s success in winning the bid to host the Winter Olympics has boosted the Chinese skiing industry, giving rise to some of the world’s biggest state-of-the-art ski resorts, Vanat said.
According to Wu Bin, president of consultancy firm Beijing Carving Ski Sports Development, more people are now traveling around China to ski. “But I see the Chinese ski market as a beginners’ market,” he said.
Wu compiles an annual report that traces the development of the nation’s ski industry. According to the latest edition, there were 703 ski resorts in China last year, a year-onyear increase of nearly 9 percent.
About 20 percent of them are in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, where some of the country’s earliest ski resorts were built as the town of Yabuli hosted the 1996 Winter Asian Games.
The number of skiers has risen, reaching 12.1 million last year.
The increased interest in the sport has boosted enrollment at ski schools. The report said the Magic Ski School, a popular ski schools chain in China, had 10 branches by the end of last year, up from three in 2016. The number of teaching staff members rose to 23,000 last year, from 10,900 in 2016.
Speaking to Xinhua News Agency, Zhang Yan, dean of the Magic Ski School, credited the 2022 Winter Olympics for his school’s success.
“Previously, many schools in Beijing considered skiing a dangerous sport that they did not allow us to teach. Even the ski lessons we offered for free were not allowed. But now, we are warmly invited to schools and they pay for the ski lessons,” he said.
Wu, from Beijing Carving Ski, said skiing only started to evolve into a leisure activity in China around 2000. Before that, it was the preserve of athletes heading to the northeastern provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, where the mountainous terrain and long, bitterly cold winters are ideal for skiing.
But when an indoor ski center with artificial snow opened in Beijing 18 years ago, it attracted people to ski during the winter.
In the following years, several ski resorts were launched to cater to growing numbers. Most are in Beijing’s Miyun district and in the northern province of Hebei, a threehour drive from the capital.
Wu said interest in skiing escalated in 2015 after China won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, which saw President Xi Jinping encouraging more people to take up skiing and other winter sports.
The central government has issued a plan that aims to develop the ice and snow sports sector into a trillion-yuan industry by 2025. Under this plan, China aims to build 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts by 2022, and encourage 300 million people to take up winter sports.
The strong government support has encouraged the industry’s rapid growth in the past three years.
New ski resorts and indoor ski centers have been built nationwide. Industry researcher Vanat said China now has 21 indoor ski centers, the most in the world.
Some of the country’s biggest companies, including property developer China Vanke and conglomerate Wanda Group, and international
companies such as Malaysia’s Genting Group, have invested in ski resorts and snow parks.
Industry players welcome China’s growing interest in skiing.
Wu said the country is now the world’s biggest market for novice skiers, while Vanat said it is one of the fastest-growing ski markets, and he expects China to have more than 1,000 areas for skiing by 2022.
The challenge is how to sustain this interest to expand the industry. Vanat said one way to do this is to customize the ski teaching curriculum to suit the domestic market.
Jeff Oliveira, founder of research and consultancy company skiChina, said: “You have a ski market which is 90 percent beginners and they’re happy to ski anywhere. But what happens if they become more experienced and want to explore a larger terrain?”
Oliveira, who has tested the slopes at several Chinese ski areas in recent years, said that Altay in Xinjiang and Changbaishan in Jilin have the potential to draw more experienced skiers, but need to be developed to become world-class destinations.