Going downhill, fast
Skiing as an industry is under pressure: lower-lying snowfields are in retreat because of climate change and numbers on the slopes are declining in countries like the US and France, because the costs of the sport are squeezing out younger consumers.
The one bright spot is China, where new resorts are being built so quickly that there could be 700 of them by the end of this year, which would be more than in Europe.
Another big boost for the sector is that winter sports are strongly supported by the Chinese government. While middle-class pursuits such as golf have few friends in policy terms, skiing has been getting the thumbs-up as part of plans to create 300 million winter sports fans by the time that Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics in 2022.
“Keep in mind that General Secretary Xi Jinping has exhorted us to prepare for the Winter Olympics and to ensure local development” was the message on a banner at one of the newest ski clusters in Chongli near Beijing, which WiC visited last December.
Others wonder whether the sport is sustainable at many of the resorts, which rely on artificial snow or draw down on already-depleted water resources in the mountains.
Of course, the snow shortage is better news for ski centres in other parts of the world: if more of the Chinese catch the ski bug, they will need to travel. Most seem likely to start out in South Korea or Japan, which are nearer to home. But the potential of the Chinese market has caught the eye of countries like Switzerland, now a host of 14 ski schools offering lessons in Chinese, and New Zealand, where the tourism board has been talking up the Kiwi slopes as “the perfect counter-season ski destination for Chinese skiers”.
One of the main challenges for all of the resorts is that almost all of China’s skiers are going to be beginners, writes Dragon Tail Interactive, a travel-focused digital marketing agency. Most of their ski slopes at home are “one-time experience facilities”, suitable only for beginners, and many Chinese are concerned that skiing abroad will simply be too difficult. Destinations that promote themselves on the basis of easier slopes and excellent instruction will do better than others.
That leads to further challenges for the ski destinations – such as finding enough Chinese-speaking instructors to give the lessons. And it’s not just the language that poses difficulties for the instructors. Insiders say that many of the newcomers from China display a distinct lack of patience, and that they give up on the sport sooner than others. “Western people don’t mind taking a lesson for a few hours each time they go ski, for years,” one instructor from a domestic resort told Tim Neville, the author of a feature on China’s ski sector in Outside Online earlier this year. “But after two or three days of lessons, Chinese people want to know how to ski, no exceptions, and it’s your fault if they can’t.”
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