Most people do not think of China as a skiing destination. That’s a perception the Chinese would like to change.
China has looked at Hokkaido’s success and decided to try and build comparable ski resorts to Japan’s in Heilongjiang. The chief beneficiary has been Yabuli, which is now the nation’s biggest ski resort. It’s already hosted a Winter Asian Games, and in a bid to lure both Chinese and foreign skiers to the area, Yabuli recently opened a Club Med resort.
Curious as to whether China could pull off an international-quality ski resort, ever-selfless WiC paid a visit. We weren’t particularly hopeful. An earlier experience of visiting a ski slope near the Great Wall in Beijing six years earlier was not a happy one. On that occasion the piste was cluttered with newly rich Chinese who took to the slopes without instruction. Since most of the new skiers hadn’t learned how to get up after a fall, the management had stationed most of its employees at each side of the piste to run on and pull skiers back to their feet.
But Club Med was an altogether different proposition. It promised a top quality ‘ski-in, ski-out’ hotel resort, and brought with it its experience from the European Alps. The French group, now part-owned by Shanghai’s Foshan, has plans to open Club Med resorts across China, so getting this one right must also be important for the franchise’s prospects in the country in general.
After a week’s stay over Christmas, WiC formed some strong opinions. First, the positives. The hotel is, as promised, right next to the gondola (cable car) that takes you up the mountain. A vibrant ski school caters for adults and kids. And there was powdery snow.
As for the hotel itself? It’s new, having just opened in November. The staff are very keen with Club Med having brought in experienced employees from around the world. They are friendly and helpful, and give the resort a more international feel by speaking English. There’s a spa, yoga classes and a heated swimming pool. What Club Med does better than anything else is cater to kids. Children (especially those under 10) love it, with the staff organising all sorts of games, shows and amusements.
But all that said, the resort’s actual location has some serious drawbacks, many of which will discourage repeat visitors. The first is its distance from the airport. Currently the only way to get to Yabuli – whether flying in from Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong – is to land in Harbin and then take a train or a coach. Club Med provides a coach transfer but it takes four hours (and more if the weather is bad). That means if you are flying from Hong Kong you spend practically a day getting to the resort, and a day leaving. So for a week long trip, you need to assume you’ll waste two of the seven days travelling.
That leaves five days of skiing, right? Wrong. The weather in Yabuli is highly inclement, with fierce blizzards common. In those conditions the resort shuts the ski lifts as it’s too dangerous to go up the mountain. On Christmas Day and December 26, the lifts were closed due to just such fierce winds. And at minus 35 degrees centigrade it was too cold to venture out anyway.
In fact, the weather is a serious problem. In Niseko and the best European ski resorts, temperatures vary between minus 5 and minus 15 degrees. These are conditions in which the human body can enjoyably ski (assuming suitably outfitted). On Christmas Eve, this writer skied at minus 28 (including wind chill), and it was not a pleasant experience. Even wearing two pairs of gloves the fingers felt frostbitten, and exposed parts of the face began to freeze. Worse, December is not even the coldest month. That honour goes to this month, where the thermometer can dip well below minus 40.
Later in the week, the temperature did rise, leading to a couple of more pleasant – though still cold – days of skiing. But even this revealed limitations. The Sun Mountain Ski Resort (where Club Med is located) is fine for beginners. But for the more experienced skier, there are only so many times you can ski its three black slopes (the fourth was closed). A mid-mountain chairlift that led to further slopes was also closed (apparently due to a legal dispute between the resort’s management and the manufacturer).
A Club Med employee told WiC the eventual goal is to link its lift pass with a neighbouring resort, where the skiing’s more extensive and the Chinese Winter Olympic team trains. But this is some way off.
If the limitations of the weather, distance from the airport and lack of pistes weren’t enough, a final reminder of the location’s limitations came in the form of a power cut. This lasted for almost a morning and affected the resort and neighbouring urban areas. WiC wondered whether it had anything to do shortages of coal (as discussed in issue 86). Suffice to say, even a five star resort can lose much of its luxury feel when there isn’t any electricity.
Would we return to the Club Med Yabuli next year? Probably not. As a ski resort it doesn’t match Niseko, which has better skiing conditions and is closer to the airport. Clearly, a lot of money has been poured into Yabuli as a resort, but how many who visited would go back? (None of those WiC spoke to).
WiC mulled whether this resort – like a lot of recently built Chinese infrastructure – could end up as a white elephant. Bear in mind, it’s not a cheap visit; a fairly standard family room costs about $1,200 per night.
Then again, with China’s particular circumstances, you can’t be so sure. There are just so many newly-rich people, and they grow in number every year. Skiing is trendy and Yabuli is being marketed as the place to ski in China. Club Med is a good brand, so the odds are that affluent Chinese will pay a visit. Every year a new group will book. So whether Club Med Yabuli actually needs a high proportion of repeat guests may not actually matter.
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