Recent market research agrees on one thing: The axis of global sports is shifting eastward. The next three editions of the Olympic Games will take place in Asia, starting with PyeongChang 2018, together with other major events such as the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. This Asian orientation will also apply to winter sports, both in terms of practitioners and industry revenues. Given that the traditional ski markets in the Alps and North America are mature and flat at best in terms of skier days, Asia is where future growth will occur.
This change will be led by China as the world’s most populous nation and the second largest economy. The Chinese government led by President Xi Jinping is planning for China to become the world’s biggest sports economy. It wishes to introduce 300 million Chinese to snow sports by 2022. In a state-led economy, the execution of such large-scale sport participation programmes is serious business. The ongoing roll-out of school football programmes to 50,000 schools by 2025 serves as a great example of the government’s delivery capacity. While still small in comparison, Asia’s ski industry has come a long way in the last few decades. According to the 2016 China Ski Industry White Book, there’re more than 15 million skier visits and 640+ ski resorts in China alone. With South Korea preparing to welcome the world’s best winter athletes next February, the combined potential of Asian winter sports including nations such as India, Kazakhstan and even Iran may not be underestimated.
Olympic winter moment
The PyeongChang 2018 Games will represent only the third time that the Olympic Winter Games transpire in Asia, and the first time they are staged outside of Japan. As the past host of both the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics, South Korea is no stranger to major events although it is less known as a winter sports nation. It may be surprising, then, that the history of skiing in Korea dates back to the 1970s. The first (and still largest) resort, Yongpyong, opened in 1975. Further resort developments in the Northern provinces of Gangwon and Gyeonggi followed. PyeongChang in the Gangwon province where Yongpyong too is located sits only approximately 150 km from the North Korean border. It will host the snow sports competitions during the 2018 Games. In recent years, skier visits in Korea have become relatively stable at around 6 million annually. But the PyeongChang region expects to grow that number post-2018. It sees itself as a future hub for winter tourism thanks to the improved access by means of the new high-speed train connection from Seoul built for the Games, an enhanced lift and snow-making infrastructure able to secure snow despite limited annual snowfall, lower prices compared to competition from Japan and the suitability of its slopes for beginner skiers. Add to that the fact that the Korean resorts often remain open around the clock to also cater to night skiing enthusiasts!
Japan, a mature ski market, has seen a dramatic consolidation of its ski industry since the record years in the 1980s. Based on the 2017 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism, there are some 11.5 million skiers in Japan yet the annual ski visits have fallen below 40 million per year because of several warm winters. In international comparison, Japan still ranks among the top 5 in skier visits. More recently, it has enjoyed a resurgence among travelling skiers seeking to experience the endless powder enabled by the annual snowfalls averaging some 14 metres. Especially the resort of Niseko on the island of Hokkaido continues to develop its infrastructure and considers itself as the premier ski resort in Asia for an international clientele.
Ski boom in china
In China, skiing is soaring not only due to the government’s plans but also thanks to a growing middle-class able and willing to spend money on leisure pursuits. In November 2016, China's General Administration of Sport issued the Ice and Snow Sports Development Plan (2016-2025) and the National Winter Sports Facilities Construction Plan (2016-2022). Under these initiatives, the government anticipates the ski industry to be worth some Rmb 600 billion by 2020 and continuing to grow as up to 1,000 ski resorts are expected to be operational by 2022. Concurrently, dozens of indoor ski domes are being built. The world’s largest ski dome called Wanda City just opened in Harbin at the end of June 2017, featuring 80,000 square metres of indoor ski fun on six slopes, a shopping centre, Olympic-sized ice rink and various hospitality services. Recent developments have gifted China with a number of high-end ski options such as the Changbaishan resort in Jilin province, one of the largest in Asia, that opened in 2012. Constructed by the Dalian Wanda Group, Changbaishan in the Changbai (“ever white”) mountains serves the newly rich and young urban dwellers with healthy cash flows. Nearer to Beijing, the planned Beijing 2022 venues in Chongli, Hebei province, offer more accessible alternatives such as the Genting Resort Secret Garden, opened in 2011, and the Thaiwoo Ski & Alpine Resort, which was completed in 2015. Further government developments are already on the horizon, such as potential plans to build the world’s highest ski resort in Tibet, near Lhasa, at an altitude of over 3,000 metres.
Central asian options
Besides Korea, Japan and China, India with its large population certainly offers some, even if far-flung potential as a ski nation. Currently, the country’s main ski resorts are in the state of Himachal in the north. An exotic skiing experience may also be had in Gulmarg, the ski resort on the border to Kashmir where most peaks rise above 4,000 metres. With largely unpatrolled terrain and high avalanche danger, Gulmarg is not meant for beginner or family skiing however. Other alternatives in Central Asia include Chimbulak, outside Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Karakol, in eastern Kyrgyzstan that are popular for back-country and helicopter skiing. Chimbulak saw great development before the 2011 Asian Winter Games. Karakol mostly serves guests from Kazakhstan and Russia with quality infrastructure and a hotel conveniently located on site. Challenges to the future of skiing in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan include expensive travel arrangements including cumbersome visa requirements, and safety concerns.
Skiing in Asia is different as an activity compared to the sport’s origins in Europe where it was born as a method of transport. Besides the active skiers, many resort guests are drawn by the pure sight of snow and watching others skiing, which has consequences for resort design. Whistler, Canada-based ski Resort Company Ecosign that has planned the Beijing 2022 ski resorts highlights the importance of a large snow area between the village and the mountain. This “meeting space” is critical in Asia where skiing is a true family affair. “The snow apron where the village and the mountain meet is important because the people who don’t ski still want to stand there and watch, throw snowballs or actually walk beside their children or grandchildren while they’re learning to ski,” says Ryley Thiessen, President of Ecosign. The cross-generational visitor profile at Asian ski resorts also makes the selection of high-quality off-mountain amenities essential. Many guests are keen on the exotic life-style of skiing with its special equipment and clothing. Others are eager to try other snow activities such as sledding, snowshoe hiking, and horse carriage riding.
Another challenge in Asia is that the majority of skiers fall into the beginner or intermediate categories and that the ski industry currently lacks quality standards and properly trained staff. A poor first experience on snow can easily turn a beginning skier away from the sport and to improve, they need well-educated instructors and qualified assistance. “The difference between China and the mature ski markets is that rather than evolving gradually, skiing in China has gone from 0 to 100 instantly,” says Benno Nager, Chief Operating Officer of the Genting Resort Secret Garden. “The facilities and equipment are top-of-line, and that’s what the Chinese who learned to ski elsewhere also expect. Our greatest challenge is finding a way to accommodate them while properly introducing the hundreds of thousands of children to skiing as part of the new government programme.” To activate 30 million Chinese snow sport participants, FIS announced a cooperation agreement with Alisports, an Alibaba company, in June 2017. The agreement will see a collaboration to develop a robust grass-roots “Get into Snow Sports – China” programme and campaign from the 2017/2018 season onwards. FIS will provide its expertise in global snow sports, with the FIS Academy/World Academy of Sport delivering scalable certification systems. They will benefit from the local knowledge of the Chinese Ski Association and the Beijing Sport University while Alisports will serve as the commercial partner through its existing channels in the Chinese market.
A new generation of skiers
Emphasising the programme’s goals, Alisports founder and CEO, Zhang Dazhong said: “The ‘Get into Snow Sports’ programme will focus on standardised scientific training to turn one-and-done consumers into consistent sports practitioners. This partnership will look to provide better opportunities for even more ordinary people to embrace the Winter Olympics spirit, to fall in love with snow, to fall in love with exercising.” With the accessibility of skiing improving around Asia in terms of facilities and affordability, the next challenge for skiing is to become the first choice of winter sport activity. New ski instruction methodologies such as terrain-based learning offer promising alternatives to teach large groups of beginners simultaneously. The Chinese “Get into Snow Sports” programme is certainly a great step toward developing a new generation of skiers in Asia. Another 30 million ski fans in China should also help make the global ski industry feel quite positive about their Asian future.