Down the White Chinese Slopes: Trends and Thoughts on Ski Resorts in China

At the eve of opening of the leading winter sports trade show, Alpitec China, I share some of my thoughts on the ski industry in China and my learning from more mature markets.

The different ski resort development models

The French model. Ski resorts are run either by local governments or by concessionaires such as Compagnie des Alpes. This allows for resorts to grow without having to necessarily acquire new land. These large ski areas with high capacity provide ongoing opportunities for private developers to build new villages with condos and retail. Les Arcs 1950 by Intrawest is a good example of a recent expansion at an already established ski resort, Les Arcs, which lead to further upgrade of the ski slopes.

The American model. Ski resorts are the work of private developers who own both the real estate and the ski slopes. Aspen, which exemplifies this model, was started in the 1940’s by industrialist Walter Paepcke who bought many properties and redeveloped them with the vision of transforming this old mining town into a cultural center, whose purpose would be the “renewal of the inner spirit”.  Today the Aspen Skiing Company is owned by the Crown family of Chicago and operates four ski areas in the Aspen region, where the real estate is some of the most expensive in the United States.

Ski resort development in China

I found a very interesting presentation on The Future of Chinese Ski Tourism by Fabio Ries, which gives a good background of the history of ski resort development in China.

Between 1999 and 2008 a large number of small privately owned ski resorts were developed mostly around Beijing and Tianjin. Later, a cluster of destination resorts started to appear in Chongli.

In 2011 the government privatized the Beidahu ski resort in an attempt to create a single-operator comprehensive destination resort alongside other popular resorts in North East China: Yabuli and Changbaishan.

Investors are now looking towards the Urumqi area where the natural conditions make it the only region in China where international level ski resorts can be developed.

Fabio Ries points out the main challenges of ski resort development in China:

  • No existing ski culture
  • Lack of coordination between the various resorts
  • Fierce competition between micro-resorts located around the same cities,
  • Very little involvement of the local communities
  • Short term view of property developers

Integrated all-season holiday resorts

From a tourism development perspective I think the key to success is the emergence of integrated all-season holiday resorts offering a range of activities for all ages and interests.

Here are some examples of how successful ski resorts are approaching leisure facilities:

  • In Avoriaz, the new Aquariaz is a unique water park featuring a ‘hybrid’ concept with natural tropical vegetation in mountain surroundings.
  • French group Compagnie des Alpes is currently studying indoor adaptations of its Parc Asterix and Walibi brands to roll out in its many ski resorts.
  • In Korea, most ski resorts are owned by large property developers to sell condos and memberships therefore the summer offering is often as, or even more, attractive with water parks (cf. Ocean World at Vivaldi Park, Korea), and golf courses.
Aquariaz waterpark in Avoriaz

Aquariaz waterpark in Avoriaz

After leisure comes culture as a growing trend to provide more depth to ski resort destinations. American ski resorts are clear leaders in the field with the Sundance Film Festival in Park City and the Aspen Music Festival. In France, the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival and the European Film Festival of Les Arcs are smaller but still very much part of the destinations’ identities and branding.

The success of future Chinese ski resorts relies on large integrated destination resorts with a long-term vision developed by big property developers with strong government backing and/or more coordination between the resorts to create umbrella destinations/brands with joint marketing campaigns (e.g. Chongli).

So far Dalian Wanda Group’s Changbaishan Mountain Resort seems to be the leading integrated destination resort with golf courses, a cineplex, a museum and a future indoor park recently commissioned to Sanderson Group.

Dalian Wanda Group's Changbaishan Mountain Resort

Dalian Wanda Group’s Changbaishan Mountain Resort

Redefining the ski experience

For the growing middle class in China who has no idea what a ski holiday means and for whom ski is perceived as a dangerous and difficult activity, it is critical to develop an all-inclusive offering based on the unique experience of being in the mountains, very much like Walter Paepcke’s “renewal of the inner spirit”. It does not have to be all about the size of the ski area or the speed of the ski lifts but more about the food, the social/family interactions and the relaxing atmosphere.

Club Med Yabuli, owned by Canadian company China Mountain Resorts, is the only branded integrated ski resort in China, which sells a ‘ski experience’. Everything is taken care of from transportation to equipment, ski pass, and after ski activities with the aim of providing guests with the ultimate family holiday.

I am also very inspired by Le Massif de Charlevoix in Canada, which incorporates a ski area, a unique touring train experience and high quality accommodation in old farm style. Imagined by an ex director of Cirque du Soleil, this unique ‘ski experience’ is designed as a journey through the region and its hidden treasures.

So let’s imagine the future of ski resorts in China…

The Yi family flies into Urumqi from Guangzhou and steps into a Mongolian themed lounge where engaging local staff checks them in for their holiday whilst introducing them to the area and its traditions. The two kids are already captivated playing with educational interactive displays.

The Yi’s are escorted to their ‘caravan’ for an unforgettable Silk Road journey to the resort. When they arrive the resort unveils as a series of themed villages linked by covered walkways (there’s no car!) and nicely blending with the mountain background. The family is shown to their apartment, where everything is ready from ski pass to ski gear. The ski pass works like Disney’s MyMagic+ and can be used at retail outlets and restaurants or to book activities.

Mrs Yi is an avid skier and spends all day on the slopes with newly met friends while the kids are taking morning ski lessons and spend all afternoon at the indoor kids park, learning about local crafts and living the life of young Mongolian kids in the old days. Mr Yi enjoys discovering the area during walks with local guides.

At night Mrs Yi opts for the Yurt Mongolian Spa while Mr Yi takes the kids shopping. There’re all the brands Mum likes and an amazing choice of local souvenirs for family and friends back in Guangzhou! The kids really enjoy all the street displays, art installations and live performers.

For dinner the Yi’s love going as a family to this themed restaurant serving local delights made with organically farmed ingredients and where Mongolian animation characters come alive, dance, play and engage in conversations with guests. The kids can’t get enough of it and Mr and Mrs Yi are so happy this will leave great visual memories of their great holiday.

At the end of the week the Yi’s go back to Guangzhou and can’t wait for their next yearly winter mountain holiday… they might even try a summer mountain holiday once!

How did you like that? How would YOU imagine the future of ski resorts in China?

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