China is about to carve out a new tourist trail, Rachael Oakes-Ash discovers, by investing heavily in snow.
Cashed-up Chinese middle-class and new-world millionaires are flocking to China's 70-plus ski resorts in a bid to tick snow skiing off the been-there-done-that list. In 2010 there were more than 5 million skiers in China, up from 10,000 in 1996 and 200,000 in 2000. The China Ski Association predicts this figure will rise to 20 million skiers by 2015, with an industry worth $US629 million ($610 million).
Ask how many ski resorts there are and you'll encounter varied answers. A 2012 China ski study report commissioned by the Canadian Tourism Commission puts the resort figure at 70 with more than 200 ski facilities. It's a big increase from 1980, when the country had only three.
But don't cancel your Japan ski plans for China just yet. Australian ski industry expert Gary Grant is the director of SEER Resort Company, a Canadian firm consulting to various resorts in China. He has spent more than 30 years in the ski industry, the past two mainly in China.
"The China market is not an advanced-skier market, they are mainly beginners and so are the ski fields," Grant says. "While some resorts are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on creating five-star hotels and facilities, most of the mountain resorts close to Beijing are mainly man-made snow, and shorter, beginner-style runs. But while the quality of the lift systems and spa resorts are top notch, the quality of service, including ski instruction and ski patrol, is sub-par. Some resorts say that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of first-timers won't revisit."
One ski venue that is breaking even and indeed increasing its market is Yabuli Sun Mountain Resort, about 1200 kilometres north of Beijing. Opened in 1957, it's China's oldest ski resort and with three mountains on offer has the largest ski terrain in the country. Yabuli Sun Mountain Resort has invested more than $100 million on gondolas, high-speed chairlifts and hotel development, including a new Club Med.
Clearly, the dollars are paying off. The World Snowboard Federation has announced that in 2015 the village will host the world snowboarding championships, while TIME magazine named Yabuli "best resort makeover" in 2009.
In the second half of 2012, Changbaishan, in north-east China's Changbai mountain range, welcomed a Westin Resort, which offers 43 ski runs that can accommodate 8000 skiers and are accessed by Changbaishan Airport. "The resorts definitely need self-regulation," Grant says.
"Some resorts had images of dog sledding and horse rides in their brochure despite not offering either. They just thought it looked good.
"Season-pass prices were all over the place when we first arrived and some holders were offering their passes up for rent on the Chinese equivalent of eBay. But with the help of Western consulting firms with established ski-marketing backgrounds, this is all changing for the better while targeting the Chinese culture, not the Western one."
But will Aussies make the trek to ski in China? Serious skiers probably won't, Grant says, but if they are already in China and want to make a side trip, they'll have the slopes mainly to themselves.