Chinese skiers hit the slopes

Sporting a stylish knit hat, sunglasses and a heavy rapper-style chain, competitive snowboarder Wang Lei surveys the powdery slope with an expert’s eye.

“I discovered snowboarding on television. I thought it was really cool,” says the one-time member of China’s military ski-jump team, who since 2002 has worked on a professional snowboarding team run by Austrian apparel label Nivit.

But Wang doesn’t train anywhere near the Austrian Alps.

He hits the slopes in Nanshan, located outside Beijing, and is part of a new generation of Chinese winter-sports enthusiasts that equipment makers hope will generate big sales in years to come.

Ski season opened in China about a month ago, with skiers and snowboarders flocking to about a dozen stations on the weekends for a few days of carefree careening down the slopes—albeit slopes covered with artificial snow.

Nanshan, a 10-slope village located 90 minutes by car from the Chinese capital, is—like the others—run by private owners looking to cash in on the latest fad to captivate the country’s wealthy urban dwellers.

“The standard of living is increasing, and the Chinese also have more time now for leisure activities,” explains Remigio Brunelli, who is working on a joint venture in China for Italian equipment-manufacturing group Tecnica.

About 2,5-million people nationwide have already braved the slopes, Brunelli says, but he believes that the number could hit eight million by 2010.

In Nanshan, not everyone has achieved Wang’s level of skill.

Falls and accidents are common among the ski beginners, who pay up to 200 yuan ($25) a day for the fun of it—an exorbitant amount by Chinese standards.

In the past five years, the number of ski stations has been steadily on the rise. Most of them are located near Beijing, even though the mountains are not exactly towering giants.

With both the European and United States ski markets totally saturated, industry professionals see China and its 1,3-billion people as the market of the future, despite brutally cold winter weather and the less-than-staggering altitudes.

“China will be a profitable market as soon as things are a bit more organised,” predicts Richard Prothet, marketing director for the French ski-equipment giant Rossignol, who has been monitoring China for eight years.

“All these little ski stations near Beijing are only open from December to March.
It’s hard to get a good return on investments.”

Prothet says French-style villages—which offer summer activities such as hiking and mountain biking in order to remain open all year—are the wave of the future for China.

“Twenty years ago, when I offered to work to promote skiing in China, people thought I was crazy. Today, I would be taken for a genius,” says 52-year-old French ski instructor Bertrand Camus.

For the second season running, Camus has abandoned his post as a ski instructor in the posh French Alpine town of Courchevel for part of the season to help set up a ski school and train instructors in Huaibei outside Beijing.

Equipment makers and ski schools in Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland have flocked to China’s slopes, concluding a number of partnership agreements to get their foot in the door before the market explodes.

But China’s development as a ski destination could face political hurdles, as the government of President Hu Jintao has pledged to pursue economic growth that is both environmentally friendly and open to the masses.

The ski villages hardly fit that bill, given the high prices and the massive amount of water used to produce the mounds of artificial snow.

This summer, the Academy of Tourism Development at Beijing International Studies University slammed the ski resorts near Beijing, saying they each consume the same amount of water as 42 000 people do over the course of a year.

“Water is so precious in Beijing. The people can live without skiing, but they can’t live without water,” the academy’s deputy director Wang Fude said, demanding a nationwide end to resort development.—Sapa-AFP

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