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China's winter sports run at red-hot white

Updated: 2023-04-05 08:15 ( CHINA DAILY )
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Tourists experience winter sports at the Big Air Shougang in Beijing on Jan 8. The 2022 Winter Olympics have fueled huge growth in China's ice and snow industry, with more than 340 million people taking part in some form of winter sports by the end of 2021. ZHU XINGXIN/CHINA DAILY

Beijing 2022 a vital role in driving the country's ice and snow economy

Ten years ago skiing and snowboarding were niche interests of just a few people in China; 10 years on, they are of interest to millions, and a lifestyle choice for many, primarily because of the Winter Olympics in Beijing last year.

The Games fueled exponential growth in the country's ice and snow industry, with more than 340 million people taking part in some form of winter sports by the end of 2021.

Wu Bin, author of the China Ski Industry White Book, said, "The hosting of the Beijing Winter Olympics has undoubtedly played a vital role in driving the development of China's winter sports, and it has brought a golden opportunity for China's skiing."

According to the latest edition of the book, 770 ski resorts were operating in China in snow season fiscal year 2019-20 (from May 1, 2019 to April 30, 2020), compared with 460 in fiscal year 2014-15, though this figure fell to 692 in 2021-22 as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns.

In 2021-22 there were 21.54 million skier visits to domestic ski resorts, compared with 11.95 million in 2014-15.

By the beginning of 2021 China had built 654 standard ice rinks, 317 percent more than in 2015, and 803 indoor and outdoor ski resorts, 41 percent more than in 2015, according to the report Beijing 2022: A Year On, by the International Olympic Committee.

"I think the real growth opportunity of the market is in the post-Winter Olympics period, and this trend will continue," Wu said. "It is preliminarily estimated that there will be a continuous growth period of five to eight years."

Laurent Vanat, author of the annual International Report on Snow and Mountain Tourism, said: "With the Olympic boom, awareness about winter sports has been growing tremendously in China, together with skiing and learning facilities. The number of skiers grew from some 3 million in 2012 to 13 million in the 2022 issue of the report. This brings China high on the podium of the ski nations."

Although the number of operating ski resorts has fallen slightly in the past three years because of the pandemic, Vanat said, "There is currently no sign that the ski area development process is slowing down, and part of the process is also that small ski areas with unsatisfactory offers and service get out of the market because clients are becoming more exacting.

"The total number of ski facilities is highly influenced by numerous very small areas that may have had problems in pandemic times and whose future may be sometimes unclear. However, the large facilities, such as indoor snow centers, have continued to grow year after year and even during the pandemic."

Now the country has all that is required to develop skiing further, Vanat said, adding that urban ski centers that sprang up during the Olympic boom are a great asset to familiarize the huge urban population, even those in southern China, with skiing.

"I do not see any reason it would suddenly stop. The centers present all the convenience required for easy learning and meet the first challenge of the ski industry, which is to make skiing accessible to the urban generations. Now the second challenge needs further hard work — to get skiing adopted by the young urban generations."

In its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, China pledged in 2015 to raise the number of people taking part in winter sports to 300 million. In fact, the National Bureau of Statistics says more than 346 million Chinese have taken up winter sports since the Games.

China won 15 medals, including nine gold medals, in Beijing last year, its most successful Winter Olympics. Experts say the success has led more young people to take part in skiing and snowboarding.

Wu said: "China will seize the historic opportunity of the Winter Olympic Games, popularize winter sports, and become a powerful country in winter sports. The idol effect of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games has been generated. Many teenagers have begun to systematically learn skiing and snowboarding. There are more and more domestic winter sports events."

Mark Thomas, managing director of S2M Consulting, a China-focused sports event company, said, "The success of Chinese athletes, such as Su Yiming and Eileen Gu, in international winter sports competitions, most notably the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, has no doubt inspired more Chinese people to take up winter sports, especially the younger generation who look to them as positive role models."

Another important factor that will boost interest in winter sports in China is the country's continued hosting of major events, Thomas said, adding that it could also support the development of a stronger domestic winter sports industry.

"China is taking steps to secure this legacy by not only consolidating the infrastructure around the winter sports industry, but also …hosting several major international winter sports events in the coming years, such as the FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships."

While the Olympics have accelerated China's process of becoming a leading winter sports nation, there are noticeable challenges to sustained growth in China's ski industry, as its development of skiing started relatively late, and the country, with limited resources, has no skiing tradition.

Thomas said that one challenge for the country is its relatively short ski season, due to the relatively mild climate.

"This means that ski resorts may not be able to operate year-round and may have to rely on other activities to generate revenue during the off-season. Additionally, there are concerns about the environmental impact of ski resorts, particularly in areas with fragile ecosystems."

Wu said: "Improving the conversion rate of beginners is the top priority for the sustainable development of China's ski market. Cultivating a large number of ski instructors and exploring a ski teaching system suitable for China's primary market in an innovative way of thinking are the key to solving the pain points of industry development."

China's huge population base and market are important guarantees for the sustainability of winter sports, Wu said.

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