Sport, Talking Point

Xi’s winter wonderland

We visit the new ski resort showcasing China’s 2022 Olympic ambitions


Open for business: Chongli boasts ski resorts only 50 minutes from Beijing by high-speed train

When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics the event was dogged by controversy – or at least it was in the run-up to the Games.

Among the concerns – particularly among the athletes – was the city’s suitability as a host, considering that its inhabitants are frequently smothered by toxic smog.

There was also indignation when the foreign press reported on the darker aspects of Beijing’s Olympic makeover – focusing, for instance, on the displaced families that saw their homes demolished to make way for infrastructure projects and other city upgrades.

Nevertheless, the Games were heralded as a great success and two years ago the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to award Beijing the 2022 Winter Olympics as well, making it the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games.

Just as before, there are critics of the city’s credentials, including those asking the rather fundamental question of whether Beijing gets enough snow. The capital’s solution to this climatic shortcoming has been simple: outsource. While the city will host a number of indoor sports, like curling and ice hockey, the outdoor competitions will take place in two other locations: Yanqing, a suburb 90km from Tiananmen Square; and Chongli, a sub-district of Zhangjiakou some 200 kilometres northwest in the neighbouring province of Hebei.

The choice of Chongli is less odd than it might seem: indeed, it was a visit to the area that sparked the idea of an Olympic bid.

It is going to host the Nordic skiing, freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. Two of the competitions are taking place in the Genting Secret Garden Resort – part-owned by Lim Chee Wah, son of the Malaysian casino magnate who founded Genting. As luck would have it, Lim is good friends with Gerhard Heiberg, a former Norwegian delegate to the IOC. The story goes that when Heiberg first visited the resort he proposed to an incredulous Lim that Chongli should ask to host the Winter Olympics. Lim thought the area was too small and impoverished to do so alone, so to take the plan forward the capital city was asked to join the bid.

Enough of the white stuff?

When it comes to snowfall, Chongli isn’t much better endowed than Beijing. In its evaluation of Beijing’s Olympic bid, the IOC had this caveat: “The Zhangjiakou and Yanqing Zones have minimal annual snowfall and for the Games would rely completely on artificial snow.” This is less surprising when you consider the history of winter sports in the area. The first ski run opened in 1996 when Shan Zhaojian, considered the father of skiing in China, came to Chongli and paid local farmers to gather sparse snowfall from the hillsides and dump it on one slope, earning Rmb0.5 per bag (about 7 cents).

Snowmaking technology has improved since then, although the weather less so. Nowadays snow cannons dot the mountains, blasting out the powder. The cannons use compressed air to spray water particles into the bitter mountain air so that it precipitates as snowfall. According to Benno Nager, chief operating officer at Genting Secret Garden, the sporting demands of the Olympics will require 570,000 cubic metres of the stuff to be generated, enough to fill 220 Olympic swimming pools.

Critics say that Chongli can’t spare this much water, as the area is generally parched. This was enough of a concern that the IOC raised it in its assessment of the venue, claiming that it believed the Chinese had “underestimated” how much water was needed.

However, it concluded that “adequate water… could be supplied”.

Nager is aware of the challenges. Talking to WiC late last month he admitted that if he hadn’t come to work at Genting three years ago he would have probably taken a negative view of the situation as well.

“Even people within the ski industry don’t really understand what’s happening here,” he explains.

Swiss-born Nager has spent much of his adult life working at ski resorts, primarily in America, after moving to California in the 1970s. Having so many seasons of experience, Nager refutes the notion that Chongli is a dry town. “In the summer we have massive thunderstorms and we’re building a reservoir to catch that water so that we have to take less from the local government in the future,” he says.

By the time the Olympics come to town, Genting Secret Garden Resort plans to fill a reservoir with 700,000 cubic metres of water, more than enough to cover its Olympic needs. The resort is also perfecting processes for capturing the runoff from snowmelt and filtering it to reduce erosion of the hillsides. The local government is taking similar measures, planting hundreds of acres of trees in the previously barren terrain as an anchor for the soil.

Nager also expects that the Chinese penchant for mastering new techniques quickly will have industry-wide benefits for snow manufacturing. In fact the Olympic organising committee in Beijing is already churning out white papers on best practices on snow production.

“The only thing you can fault us on,” Nager conceded to WiC, “is energy consumption.” The resort has around 70 snow cannons and running them requires plenty of electricity. But Beijing is keen to flex its green credentials – even more so after President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord. To this end, Nager says, the government is endeavouring to fuel the Olympics with renewable energy. On the mountains opposite the ski slopes, new wind turbines spin and solar farms are dotted around other parts of the province.

Property moguls

It is not just Genting that needs to create its own snow. Two new resorts have opened in the vicinity in the last two years, and three more are due to start operations before 2022. Of course, the construction of ski resorts requires swathes of land, and once again the authorities have faced criticism for moving some of the residents who already live on it. The IOC highlighted that issue too: “The ski jumping venue and the Olympic Village in the Zhangjiakou Zone would require the relocation of approximately 1,500 people.”

Taizicheng is one of villages that has already been levelled – in its case to make way for the terminus of a $9 billion high-speed railway being built from Beijing to the Chongli resorts.

The IOC requires that athletes need not travel more than an hour between competition venues, but Chongli is currently three and a half hours away from the city by highway.

The bullet train will cover the same route in about 50 minutes.

According to WiC’s guide, the former residents of Taizicheng were compensated for their removal from the area and they have been relocated to newly built properties in the main town, a few kilometres away.

Genting has bought more land on the mountain opposite its current slopes and it plans to increase the total number of ski runs from around 40 today to 88 in the future. The land had previously belonged to farmers, but many of them now work at the resort. According to Isaac Zhao, public relations director of the Genting resort, the company compensated them with a lump sum, a new property, and jobs where they can earn up to Rmb20,000 a month.

Previously, they might have made a few thousand yuan a year, he says. Zhao calculates the total package offered the villagers as much as 120 years-worth of past income.

Their new, more centrally-located properties are a huge part of that financial boost. Real estate prices in Chongli have doubled since 2015 with new builds now valued between Rmb14,000 and Rmb18,000 per square metre.

According to the South China Morning Post, prices have plateaued since May, when the government imposed purchasing restrictions, limiting outsiders to buying only one flat. However, as the Olympics gets closer, prices look set to run higher. For wealthier Beijingers Chongli will be easy to reach for weekend skiing. And owning an apartment there will have year-round benefits – the better quality mountain air offering an escape from Beijing’s summer humidity.

Sohu Finance reports that 90% of buyers in Chongli already come from Beijing – a statistic that isn’t likely to decrease when the bullet train line opens in the next 18 months.

Genting is currently building an additional 1,500 apartments in the resort. Zhao says different options are being considered to cater to different types of buyer and as a way of hedging against potential new property market restrictions and taxes (see WiC389).

“We could either simply sell them wholesale or as time-share options, or another option is where we guarantee a return for five years. We want to wait to see what the market will do,” he says.

Planning ahead

Currently the town of Chongli consists of three parallel streets, each about a mile long. In preparation for the Olympic bid, they all had a makeover. English signage was added to shops on the main street, giving the remote outpost a peculiarly international feel. The streets were cleaned and roadside markets were closed down. Red banners were put up to encourage residents to “work together to achieve the China Dream” and “make the Olympics a success”.

Now that the Olympics is approaching, the next face-lift will be more dramatic still. Zhao says that by 2022 there will be 150,000 beds available in the town, up from around 10,000 now. The media centre that Genting is building for the Olympics will likely become a conference centre after 2022, complete with a helipad. A new mall will be built and a government facility to house visiting bureaucrats is likewise in the offing.

When Xi Jinping visited the resort in January this year, he was ready with plenty of planning advice. “There should be clear positioning of this region for future development,” he urged. “Rather than developing into a large-scale comprehensive metropolitan area, Chongli should be built into a ski destination with a strong local character.”

The common consensus in the town is that Chongli will become a holiday destination for Beijing residents after the Olympics. After all, the whole metropolitan area around the capital is already undergoing significant change. Regular WiC readers will know that the government has touted merging Beiing, Tianjin and Hebei into a single economic area (see WiC294 for more on the Jing-Jin-Ji plan) and it has already designated Hebei’s Xiongan as the new seat of government administration (see WiC361).

How about international visitors?

The quicker connection to Beijing (plus a potential expansion of nearby Zhangjiakou airport) could make the spot more popular for the international market as well. Genting already has staff proficient in English, such as its head butler Ricky Chao as well as ski instructors from overseas.

For foreign skiers the resort will offer less powder and off-piste skiing than its European or US counterparts, which some will view as a drawback. This will be less of a concern for domestic tourists ­– particularly the new generation of Chinese millennials learning to ski. For them the expertly groomed slopes, clear blue skies and dry climate will be the main draw .

The bike-sharing app Mobike has already established its presence in Chongli – though WiC suspect its distinctive silver and orange rentable bicycles will see greater usage from summer tourists than those hitting the slopes.

“I truly believe it will become a four-season resort,” Nager says. A number of nearby venues will double up as golf courses and Genting already offers mountain biking and hiking during the warmer months. This year it teamed up with BMW to host a race that saw teams of four run alongside and drive BMW SUVs.

Zhao sees other possibilities in the future, proposing that Chongli and its environs might be a good place for Beijing’s elderly population to live. That’s not unreasonable: it was reported last year that the capital was experimenting with subsidising its senior citizens if they moved to care homes outside of the more central districts of the city (see WiC334).

What about the legacy?

On the town’s main street, hanging in front of the newly built apartments for relocated villagers, one crimson banner instructs passers-by to “Keep in mind that General Secretary Xi Jinping exhorted us to prepare for the Winter Olympics and to ensure local development”.

The forthcoming Games are another jewel in Xi’s broader plan of promoting “mass fitness” – an ambition that at first focused on football but is now expanding to incorporate winter sports too.

Ice hockey has seen an uptick in participation over the last two years (see WiC357) for instance, although there’s still some way to go to meet Xi’s target of getting 300 million people “involved” in winter sports by 2022.

Perhaps the focus on skiing is something of a surprise in a country where sports like golf have been criticised as elitist (and too demanding of a scarce water supply).

But in places like Hebei the local government is already trying to get more people onto the slopes. One recent scheme requires ski resorts to give local under-18s free lift passes, while local schools are bussing their students to the slopes to take ski lessons as part of the curriculum.

According to the South China Morning Post, classes on the Winter Olympics (including modules on etiquette for spectators) will be taught at 2,000 schools, including all the capital’s primary and secondary schools, by 2022 as well.

Clearly Xi Jinping wants the Olympics to serve as a celebration of his second term in office (which also ends in 2022) and his guiding hand is said to have been influential even in the construction of the Olympic village in Chongli. Presented with the designs that the local government had put forward, Xi is said to have declared that they weren’t good enough. The original plan was scrapped and an entirely new aesthetic was drawn up, based on a hybrid look of Swiss chalets and Chinese imperial palaces.

The spot where the high-speed train arrives in town is now an unremarkable plateau between recently reforested mountains. But when it opens a nearby gondola will ferry passengers past the gleaming shopping district and directly to the Olympic slopes.

Another feature of the resort – a restaurant adjacent to the ski jump precinct with spectacular views over the surrounding mountains – is being developed as a public-private partnership (PPP) in response to another of Xi’s maxims.

Over the longer term, the idea is that the Olympic facilities will pay for themselves as they are pressed into service as tourist attractions once the Games are over.

Of course, Olympic hosts have had similar hopes for years, although it is notoriously difficult to balance the books. In Yanqing – the third venue of the Olympic trio, and host to the alpine skiing, bobsleigh and luge events – the local authorities have just opened the bidding for the construction of their own Olympic facilities, adopting the PPP model as well. Currently the only ski resort in the area houses just four runs, targeting first-timers who want to double up on a day trip to the Great Wall. The high-speed train to Chongli will make a stop at Yanqing – but also at Badaling, which is one of the main access points for Great Wall visits.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.