China’s Snowballing Winter Sports Scene

CHANGBAISHAN, China — A phalanx of skiers formed at the bottom of the slopes at the Wanda Changbaishan resort, clutching their poles close to their sides as they waited as long as 20 minutes at peak times to hop onto the lifts. Not far from it, there was another queue for the magic carpet ferrying up not a line of children, but mostly adults who were about to take their first shaky snowplows in the nursery.

Not exactly blessed with the most ideal conditions for the sport, China ranks far down the list of global ski destinations. Its mountains lack the exciting steep drops seen in Europe, the waist-deep powder days in Japan, and temperatures in the northeast, where most of China’s ski resorts are clustered, are harsh. They hover around minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) in the day and dip to minus 30 degrees Celsius (22 degrees Fahrenheit) or below at night — also meaning that for much of the season, there is little natural snowfall.

But, no matter. With just a year to go before the Beijing Winter Olympics begins on Feb. 4, 2022, and the COVID-19 pandemic keeping the populace within the nation’s borders, skiing and other snow sports have reached a fever pitch.

Pushed heavily by the government, the Chinese are picking up skis and snowboards and heading for the slopes in record numbers. By 2022, the ski market is expected to be $3.97 billion, a nearly fivefold increase from 2015, according to a 2019 report by the EU SME Centre. Grand investments have been made into improving resort facilities and accessibility — linking key areas like Chongli, the site of next year’s games, by high-speed rail to downtown Beijing in under an hour — and providing subsidized lessons and equipment for students across large swathes of the country.

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The magic carpet at the Silk Road ski resort in Xinjiang. Zhang Xiuke/AP

In December, Prada for the first time organized a ski trip for a number of its VIPs in China, taking place over three days at the Wanda Changbaishan resort. Among them, Linda Li, a TV anchor and former model, who remarked how she’d never seen such energy for skiing before in China.

“I remember when I was skiing 10 years ago in Megève, France,” she said. “I was the only Chinese there and skiing was not very popular in China back then. But this time, I really felt people’s enthusiasm for skiing in Changbaishan.”

A skier like Li, who can carve gracefully down the mountain, is not so common on China’s slopes. Although lines for the green runs in China are formidable, advanced skiers can have their pick of mostly empty black pistes.

As to be expected with an entire nation picking up snow sports nearly from scratch, wipe-outs are common and slope etiquette can be wanting. According to the Ski Industry White Book, the number of domestic skiers in 2019 totaled 13.05 million, of which 72 percent are first-timers. When it comes to après, it is hot pot over hot chocolate.

“As a holiday lifestyle, it’s really just starting,” said Sandy Ip, who runs The Ski Project, a high-end multibrand snow apparel retailer that opened its newest location at the resort to host next year’s games. With stores also in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Niseko, and Bangkok, The Ski Project focuses on carrying more niche brands like Goldbergh and Perfect Moment. “It used to be the really hardcore Chinese skiier that goes to Xinjiang or Yabuli [in Harbin province] to ski for one week. They don’t care about what to eat or where they stay. It’s no longer about that.”

“In the past, the Chinese were either really good Olympian-level because they were part of a sports team or you just don’t ski at all,” said Ip. “This year is the year that everyone is going skiing, the growing middle class. It’s particularly this year.”

Prada ski pop-up at SKP-South Beijing. Courtesy Photo

China’s ski resorts are located most notably in Hebei province, which encircles Beijing, as well as in the northernmost reaches of the country in Jilin and Heilongjiang. There’s also some skiing out west in Sichuan. Further out, Xinjiang provides China’s best natural snow in places such as Koktokay, although realistically hitting Japan — in a typical year — is more easily accessible to the majority of Chinese urban dwellers than is Xinjiang.

Snowboarding brand Burton was a relatively early mover in the space. The company started selling in China in 2003, biding its time and building up relationships to prepare for the explosion of the market.

“That day is finally here with a vengeance,” said Craig Smith, Burton China chief executive officer. “Our business this season to next season will be up 90 percent.”

Now in charge of 10 Burton stores across the country, he stated that their network could grow to a “couple dozen or a couple hundred in the next five years, depending on how well we do in educating the market.”

Smith, who witnessed the expansion of the Japanese market pegged to the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics, believes there are a lot of similarities to Beijing 2022.

“The growth that Burton saw from Japan from 1997 to 2000 — sales tripled in those three years — just exponential growth at that time,” said Smith. “It’s that same customer, the twentysomething that has access to the financial resources for the sport, because it is expensive.”

The Burton Beijing store. Courtesy Photo

While on one end of the spectrum there are brands like Burton, The North Face, and Anta Sports-owned Arc’teryx that underscore performance, there are others that emphasize more of a fashion proposition, including nonendemic brands trying the market. For instance, Mackage, the Montreal outerwear brand famous for its figure-hugging down parkas, rolled out its ski line in China for the first time in November.

“We treated this year as a small test with very strong sell-throughs,” said Eran Elfassy and Elisa Dahan, the cofounders of Mackage, adding that they “anticipate to at least quadruple our investment with an expansion into men’s.”

“There is a strong appetite for novelty, lighter colors, superior tailoring for flattering silhouettes which has been our brand’s strong suit,” the founders noted about China. Top sellers tend to be their signature styles, indicating that “the need to still have brand recognition on the slopes is just as strong,” they said.

The fashion statement element is also a strong driver at Fusalp. The Annecy, France-headquartered brand is a heritage outfitter to the French national ski team but perhaps taking a page from Moncler, which has seen huge success with its frequent designer collaborations, believes the bigger opportunity lies in city and après.

Fusalp CEO Alexandre Fauvet shared that around two-thirds of the company’s sales in China come from ready-to-wear versus true technical products, compared to an even split in the U.S. and Europe. Even with the benefit of time, he doesn’t believe that the ratio of sales in China will evolve to match Western markets.

A line outside the Moncler store in Shanghai’s iAPM mall. The brand will host its Genius project in China this year, the first time it has hosted it outside of Europe. 

China’s natural landscape may have its limits, Fauvet acknowledged, but he said it matters less than one might expect in cultivating a passionate culture around snow sports.

“I give you the example of the U.K., which doesn’t have any mountains, or very few in Scotland, but they are fantastic skiers, even in competition,” he said.

In the same way that most avid British skiers head to nearby France, Switzerland or Italy to ski rather than their own country, he believes that Chinese are likely to pick up the snow vacation. Initial learning and also warming up for each season can be facilitated on local mountains but Chinese will easily adapt to heading abroad for time in the snow.

“I myself would be in Europe or Japan usually to ski right now,” said The Ski Project’s Ip, “but it’s such an emerging sport there will always be beginners that will want to learn locally.”

Once international travel resumes, Smith said, Japan, with its unparalleled snow and proximity to China, will be critical in connecting with the Chinese snow enthusiast. South Korea, which hosted the Pyeongchang 2018 games, will also have a role to play, but Smith believes to a lesser degree, as well as traditional ski outposts in the U.S. and Europe.

“For Korea, they’ll go for the secondary factor. They go over for the food and culture and shopping first and might tack on some time in the mountains,” he said.

Convinced that this is merely the start of a long-lasting lifestyle around the snow, Smith said, “It’ll be up to us to ensure the trend continues but the Olympics are going to be a huge promotion for the snow industry, and the huge investments at the resorts in China are unfathomable in size.”

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