The Chinese ski market has officially taken off. Winter sports in general have quickly gained in popularity in China over the last two decades, and the proximity of the 2022 Chinese Winter Olympics pushed this trend even further. Xinhua news reported that as of January 2022, China surpassed its national goal of having 300 million winter sports participants.
In 2002, China only had 130 ski resorts, yet in 2022 the nation reached 804 ski resorts. This does not include China’s 45 dry slopes, counting 350,000 visits in 2019 and the ever-growing Chinese ski simulator industry, boasting a growth rate of 34% from 2018 to 2019 with 780,000 visits that year.
China is projected to become the largest winter sports market, with people participating expected to reach 50 million by 2025 with 1,000 ski resorts to be open by 2030. Since winning bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics coming up, the Chinese government has doubled down the construction of new resorts and the promotion of winter sports across the country, supporting the Chinese people’s growing interest in skiing.
Data source: 2020 China Ski Industry White Book, designed by daxue consulting, the number of ski resorts in China is increasing, but most ski resorts are small-scale and do not have chairlifts.
China’s ski market is saturated with beginners and first timers, the question is, how many of them will stick around?
With such a sharp increase in skiers and snowboarders over the last couple years, China’s ski market is saturated with beginners. This means that the number of returning visits to resorts is not reliable. China’s ski market has managed to penetrated a wide geographical area of the country. Despite that the majority of China’s population lives in moderately warm and humid east coast, nearly one third have participated in winter sports as of January 2022, according to state sources. This is possible due to the high number of small resorts located as far south as Anji, Zhejiang, and for the indoor resorts in areas like Guangdong and Shanghai, where people otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to snow sports. Snow sport tourism was a trend for the 2021-2022 winter season, posts on Xiaohongshu regarding skiing and snowboarding grew by 95% year on year.
Skiing has become a status-enhancing sport, targeting the upper class
Indeed the social aspect is very important for skiers in China, as it has become a new signifier of an “urban aristocracy” lifestyle. A ski and snowboard shop sales manager in Nanjing reports that the average ski set sells for 5,000 to 10,000 RMB, however he has no doubt that those making the purchases earn over 10,000 RMB in a month. Brands are noticing the affluent demographic of Chinese skiers, and luxury brands like Louis Vuitton started promoting their 40,000 RMB skis in China.
Considering the expenses of snow sports like skiing and snowboarding, it is shocking that nearly a quarter of China’s population has already participated in snow sports. Of course, ‘upper class’ couldn’t possibly include a quarter of China’s population, so how can skiing be affordable to the rest of the population?
Daxue consulting’s Project Leader Qian Chen says, “the government gives direct subsidies when you buy lift tickets, sometimes also when reserve learning lessons and hotels for skiing.” This allows more people to enjoy winter sports, which can be a burden on the wallet. The image below shows a screenshot from a travel booking platform, where passes to ski areas have stipends to cover the costs.
Source: C-trip, Beidahu ski vacation with subsidies from the Chinese government
Skiing appeals to younger Chinese generations
The Chinese ski market is relatively young and so are its consumers: according to the 2020 China Ski industry white book, 36% of skiers and snowboarders were between 20 to 30 years old. While Chinese skiers come from all over China, Beijing and the northern provinces of Hebei, Liaoning, and Jilin are the most prevalent origin among ski lovers. Gender distribution among Chinese ski resorts visitors is evenly split, with a noticeable exception of indoor ski resorts which are more popular among women.
The incoming Winter Olympics and government’s push to promote snow sports have increased the interest in Skiing among Chinese consumers, families with children being the demographic expected to take up on skiing the most in the coming years.
The 2022 Winter Olympics enthusiasm has also influenced the winter apparel market in China. That market represented last year according to Statista 725M$ in revenue but has remained largely untapped for foreign brands, partly because until recently most Chinese skiers were going to ski abroad. Alongside Decathlon, which has been in China for a long time, Chinese brands such as Snowfavor, Copozz, and Free Ski Zone have ramped up their activity too meet the new domestic demand, especially online.
Chinese winter sports athletes could join the idol economy
Many winter Olympic athletes have high branding potential. Most notable is freestyle skier Eileen Gu who has already done brand endorsements for JD.com and Mengniu Diary. Another athlete that has already had a taste of stardom is snowboarder Yiming Su, who as a child acted in several movies and drama series, most famously as Xiaoshuanzi in “The Taking of Tiger Mountain”.
The winter sports idol economy can further bolster the popularity of winter sports among young Chinese, and even feed dreams for the medalists of the future.
As a beginner’s market, the Chinese competitive ski scene still has room to grow
While skiing has been rising in popularity in China over the last decade, Chinese competitive skiing has not yet taken off. During the 2018 Winter Olympics, China was only able to win 9 medals, only one of which being gold, and most of them in ice skating and freestyle skiing. Domestic ski competitions are also usually dominated by foreign athletes from Norway and Russia, usually leaving Chinese athletes behind on the leaderboards.
Even though China has ramped up the training of its athletes for the Winter Olympics, China still lacks high performing star skiers, Han Xiaopeng being the most successful in recent years despite the fact that he retired back in 2010. This lackluster competitive scene is mainly the consequence of a young industry and the fact that the great majority of Chinese ski resorts do not have vertical drops higher than 100m and thus do not offer optimal conditions for competitive skiers to train, although recent projects have aimed to correct that.
Data source: 2019 China ski industry White Book. China’s ski resorts do not offer very high vertical drop, although this trend is slowly changing.
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics may not be the year that China piles on the medals, but it will be the year that inspires millions in the country to take on snow sports, fueling the potential for medal-earning years down the road.
The popularity of snowboarding is promising
Whereas in Europe skiing is more dominant, China is starting to look more like the US where snowboarding is the popular choice. Just like skiing, snowboarding’s popularity has grown in China despite being a young industry. As of 2020, the Chinese snowboard market represents 300 to 400 thousand people who have visited stores mainly located around the Beijing area and major ski resorts. A rather small market for a mountainous country of 1.3 billion, but it is expected to grow 30% in the coming years according to local store owners. Burton, an American snowboard company, has been present in China since 2003 and is now about to reap the rewards of its long-term investment.
Holding only one FIS competition a year for snowboarding, you would except the Chinese snowboarding competitive scene to be on par with its skiing scene, however Liu Jiayu has been a rising star in Women snowboarding, scoring a silver medal in Women’s Halfpipe during the 2018 Winter Olympics, she has consistently performed well in other events and has become an inspiring figure for snowboarding in China. She is expected to return for the 2022 Olympics.
Image: Xinhua. Liu Jiayu won China’s first medal at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics
Chinese cross-country skiing: a niche market bound to rise as well
Alongside snowboarding and alpine skiing, the Chinese cross-country skiing market is still in its infancy. Only major Chinese ski resorts like Yabuli and Changchun offer cross country trails to their visitors as most Chinese visitors prefer to go abroad for their skiing needs.
With only three major national events a year (Vasaloppet China, Luneng and Yakeshi), competitive cross-country skiing in China has still room for improvement, something that Chinese officials have been aware of as a new indoor cross-country ski resort has opened its doors this year in Jilin. The facility will welcome local athletes such as Wang Qiang and Li Hongxue and amateurs alike in another contribution to Beijing’s plan to introduce 300 million new participants to snow sports and train its athletes in the run up to the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Image: Xinhua. Jilin’s new indoor Cross-country ski resort, featuring 1300m indoor and 1600m outdoor ski runs is the first of its kind in Asia
Behind China’s 804 ski and snowboard resorts
China’s ski areas can be broken down into three main regions: The Beijing area, the Dongbei area, and the Xinjiang area.
- Beijing area‘s advantages is that the transportation is good, as in the resorts are easily accessible. There are plenty of restaurants, spas, and good hotels, making it an attractive travel destination, especially for beginners and families. Wanlong is in Chongli are some of the largest ski resorts in China and are driving distance from Beijing. Both are very famous among people who ski a lot and have long ski seasons. However, as the snow conditions in this region are not good, resorts have to rely on artificial snow.
- Dongbei is blessed with plenty of snow, but is too cold for some people, with a negative 30 degrees. Service in terms of restaurants and hotels is not as good, and many visitors choose to stay in a nearby village. The transportation is not convenient as the nearest airports are hours away. Beidahu is one of Dongbei’s most famous ski resorts.
- Xinjiang provides the highest quality experience for those willing to make the trek. The area sees a lot of snowfall, is in a high altitude and hotels and restaurants are also plentiful and high quality. Xinjiang has more off-trail skiing opportunities than Dongbei or Beijing, and as a result is the most similar to the mountains of Europe. The problem is that it’s very far and very strict COVID-19 policies, including the potential for a 14-day quarantine.
Even without the pandemic, China’s ski and snowboard resorts are not likely to draw in international crowds. Because of snow quality issues, fewer mountains with high vertical drops, and the ski culture being undeveloped, China’s ski resorts are not pulling crowds from North America, Europe or Japan. However, there is some hope in the future for China’s ski resorts to develop into world-class destinations, especially in the Xinjiang region. However, accessibility is a major issue. Until then, Chinese ski and snowboard resorts are finding success through domestic tourism alone.
Ski simulators and dry slopes: an alternative to resort skiing
Although the number of ski resorts in China has surged over the past two decades, the overall quality of the low-end resorts and the lack of affordability of the high-end ones have made casual Chinese skiers to look for alternatives. Indoor skiing has seen a rise in popularity in large cities, especially among women, but other high-tech alternatives also have started to develop. Indeed, China now counted approximatively 140 ski simulator venues in 2019 with 780,000 visitors that year, a 34% increase from 2018. More popular among teens and children than regular skiing, these simulators are also used by athletes to train all year long for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Spearheaded by companies like Skinow and SkyTechSport, that technology has faced a rising demand in China from the public and professionals alike.
Another way to ski all year despite the hot Chinese weather are dry slopes. These synthetic ski slopes are a recent trend in China, starting around 2012, there are now 45 dry slopes areas in China, sporting 342,300 visitors in 2019. They can be found everywhere in China but especially Beijing and Sichuan province.
Together with ski simulators, they represent a market of over 1 million annual visitors that has been booming over the past 5 years and promises even more growth among the increasing interest of the Chinese population for winter sports.
Imgage: Skytechsport. Ski simulators have grown in popularity in China
Chinese ski resorts face fierce foreign competition
Although the number of new ski resorts in China has been booming in recent years, it is important to note that out of the 770 resorts in 2019, only 155 of them were equipped with aerial lifts. This is mainly due to the fact that 77% of Chinese ski resort visitors only seek a casual touristic experience, thus the vast majority of ski resorts in China (78%) have a vertical drop of less than 100m and are only equipped with basic facilities and beginner trails. These resorts are fairly inexpensive (About 100 to 150 rmb for a day, rental included) compared to the “premium” Chinese ski resorts which can be up to 5 times more expensive.
These resorts are located mainly in the north of the country, especially around Beijing, and offer a wide variety of ski trails for advanced and beginner skiers alike but are still rather small compared to international standards and rarely include anything more challenging than a black diamond, and rarely include areas for powder, mogul or tree skiing. Because of this lack of overall quality among the Chinese resorts, more advanced Chinese skiers have been going abroad to ski, especially to Japan or in the Alps for those who can afford it.
Source: China Ski Industry White book, Premium Chinese ski resorts are mainly located in the Beijing area and the north-west of the country
The ski market in China is full of potential
- The key takeaway from the current state of the Chinese ski market is it is still very young: a vast majority of Chinese skiers are beginners that just now are picking up an interest in snow sports. Some netizens are hitting the slopes in style and sharing their luxury ski outfits on social media.
- While the 2022 Winter Olympics have sparked an ever-growing appetite for skiing and the construction of many new ski resorts across the country, much of the country is pained by poor snow conditions. Many of the largest resorts rely on creating artificial snow. However, those resorts with quality snow and high vertical drops show potential, but are lacking the transportation and accommodation infrastructure for the time being.
- The Chinese competitive ski scene has yet to fully develop, with great expectations for the 2022 Olympics. As some ski athletes are achieving stardom in China.
- Chinese travel influencers seem to be the go-to KOLs to promote ski trips in China, especially since the latest are mostly booked online on travel trip websites such as Mafengwo.
- As the 2021-22 season was the first major wave of skiing in China, the stickiness to the sport remains to be seen. Factors to evaluate the future potential of China’s ski market include how many of this year’s first timers decide to make it into a life sport or even begin competing.
Author: Camille Gaujacq, updated by Allison Malmsten