The remarkable rise of skiing in China

Lucy Aspden
International ski instructors have been brought in to teach the growing number of skiers in China - 2016 Getty Images

There’s a new kid on the ski scene: forthcoming Winter Olympics host China, which has its sights set on a big haul of gold medals on home soil and has been encouraging local people to head to the mountains. And it seems these efforts are paying off. 

It has been announced that skiing in China hit a significant milestone during the 2018/19 winter, with resorts in the Chongli district, close to Zhangjiakou city, recording over one million lift passes sold, the first of the country’s ski areas to do so.

Since Beijing was announced as the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, China has supercharged its ski industry to maximise the chance of its athletes being on the podium in three year’s time.

The Chongli district, in the northern Hebei province, is home to seven individual resorts and is one of the country’s most developed ski areas. Its advanced infrastructure has lead to it being chosen to host many events at the 2022 Winter Games.

Officials reported that 1.07 million lift passes were sold during the 101-day ski season across the resorts in Chongli – it’s the first ski area in the country to surpass the one million mark.

The Chinese government hopes to have 300 million new skiers and snowboarders by 2022 Credit: 2015 Visual China Group/VCG

The first ski resort in the district opened in 1996, attracting just a few thousand people each winter. In 2003 visitor numbers had grown to 40,000 and later to 200,000 in 2009 – since then numbers have continued to soar, hitting one million in the 2018/19 winter.

Between them the region’s seven resorts have 169 pistes, spanning a total of 162km, and are served by 67 lifts. By comparison the Espace San Bernardo ski area, which connects popular British destination La Rosière in France with La Thuile in Italy, spans a similar – but linked – area of 152km following a recent expansion.

Boosting its international profile, the Chongli region has hosted 13 International Ski Federation (FIS) competitions, including the snowboard halfpipe World Cup and the ski moguls World Cup, as well as 60 other local and international events.

When it was announced that Beijing would be the next host of the Games, next in line after Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, Liu Peng, president of the Chinese Olympic Committee, predicted that the country will have 300 million winter-sport enthusiasts by the time the global sporting event comes to town. This would make China the biggest skiing nation on the planet.

Earlier this year it was announced that all-inclusive holiday operator Club Med and the Ecole du Ski Francais (ESF) have joined forces to open a ski school in China. The China Ski Academy powered by Club Med and ESF is based at Beijing Star Mountain Ski Resort, roughly an hour’s drive from the centre of the capital, and offers ski and snowboard instructor training.

Reports suggest that only 22 per cent of first-time skiers in China try the sport again as many perceive it to be too dangerous. It’s thought better instructors will help entice more skiers back.

Wanlong is one of the biggest resorts in the Chongli district Credit: 2015 Visual China Group/VCG

The Warren Smith Ski Academy opened the first British-run ski school in China in 2016 in the resort of Wanlong, part of the Chongli district. The Academy began training Chinese instructors there a year later to help supply the demand from the local population to learn to ski.

Since the 300 million objective was set, calls by both the government and public for quality ski resorts and facilities has been on the rise. Last September plans were revealed to build the world’s largest indoor ski resort in Shanghai. Once complete, Wintastar Shanghai will cover a whopping 227,000 square metres, with its main run spanning 90,000 of those. It will steal the largest-indoor-slope title from the Harbin Wanda Indoor Ski and Winter Sports Resort, which opened in July 2017.

In August 2018 another state-of-the-art artificial ski slope opened, six hours drive from Beijing, which will provide training facilities for the Chinese snowboarding team during the summer months.  

The state-of-the-art Yunmen mountain resort, which opened last summer, spans 7,000 square metres

In 2016 China’s National Development and Reform Commission revealed plans worth an estimated £169 billion to build hundreds of new ski resorts ahead of the Games, in an attempt to boost the country’s medal prospects. It’s thought that already at least 700 ski resorts have opened across the country.

The number of international visitors to Chinese ski resorts is unknown, but is expected to be minimal. The resorts are often designed with the home-grown ski market in mind, with a focus on beginner slopes and child-friendly areas. Club Med is the only international operator to offer winter holidays in China. It has two all-inclusive properties in the country, the first at China’s premier ski resort Yabuli in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and the second, which opened in 2016, Club Med Beidahu in the resort of Beidahu in Jilin province, north-east of Beijing.