Is skiing's future in the East?
Skiing in Asia is booming at an unprecedented rate – and faster than anywhere else in the world. By 2020 it is predicted that there’ll be some 420 million skier visits to resorts in Asia each year, a rise of almost 20 million on today’s numbers. But growth isn’t expected to stop then. With 1,100 ski areas already open for business, and more planned for construction, skiing is a burgeoning business.
And it’s no wonder: with two Olympics on the horizon – 2018 in South Korea and 2022 in China – sports that were, until recently, relatively unheard of are suddenly seeing an exponential rise in popularity. This was confirmed two years ago while skiing in South Korea, when a local twentysomething from Seoul told me: “Until the Olympics were announced very few people were interested in skiing in Korea, now people talk about it, and, like me, want to try it.”
But it is China that is the big new player in the ski world now. Skiing here has been growing steadily for the last 15 years or so, but in the last five years – and most markedly in the last 12 months – things have really started to change, with a huge surge in interest for the sport.
It’s been a whirlwind transformation; at the turn of the century, there were virtually no ski resorts in the world’s most populated country. This gradually started to change about a decade ago, but for many years the rapid growth of the industry vastly outweighed the number of people actually interested in skiing. It is only in recent years that the tide has started to turn, with vast numbers of people learning to ski, and starting to take an active interest in the sport.
And this current growth is set to accelerate quickly thanks to China’s success in winning the rights to the 2022 Winter Olympics. It’s an accolade that makes Beijing the first city in the world to host both the summer and the winter Games. But it won’t be the city’s first experience of winter sports – the Bird’s Nest stadium is already home to huge freestyle big air competitions each winter.
And this year, thanks to the opening of a new Club Med, China’s credentials as the next big skiing continent continue to be bolstered. Nowhere is this more evident than when considering ski area and visitor numbers. While established ski nations have seen the total number of ski areas plateau – if not fall – in the last half a century, in China there’s been a dramatic surge. In fact, with a claimed 550 ski resorts now in operation, the country rivals the likes of Austria.
In the end, the bid to host the 2022 Olympics boiled down to a two horse race between China and Kazakhstan, which hoped to host the Games at ski resorts surrounding Almaty. One man who knows both countries better than most in Paul Mathews, the president of Ecosign, and the world’s pre-eminent ski resort designer. Even if you haven’t visited one of the resorts he has designed from scratch, such as Sochi, in Russia, or Hanazono, in Niseko, Japan, you may have visited a resort he has helped redesign, such as Courchevel, in France, or Zermatt, in Switzerland.
He worked on China’s bid for the 2022 Olympics, and describes China’s venues as superior to those its rival Kazakhstan included in its bid, concluding he was “perplexed” as to why the former Soviet republic chose the venues in Almaty that it did. And despite Beijing being in the grips of a chronic water shortage, Mathews says: “Beijing winning the Games is good for the snow business in China. It will ignite a boom with many more children coming to the snow.”
Kazakhstan will, of course, have felt snubbed when it lost its bid, especially as it was already set-up to host the 2017 World Winter Universiade – a competition that features many of the Olympic sports. In what many described as a two-fingered gesture to the IOC, soon after the announcement, city planners in Astana, the capital city, revealed plans to construct an apartment block complete with an artificial ski slope wrapped around it. Bizarre, and a waste of money, it is – but the plans provide further proof of how skiing is capturing the imagination of citizens in Asia. Such a plan in London or Paris, say, would spark outrage.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, preparations are underway for its forthcoming Olympics. Most of the country’s ski resorts are found in the Pyeongchang region – the Olympic host. YongPyong, which will host the technical Alpine events, caters best for the international market, with several apartment blocks, and the Dragon Valley hotel – the resort’s most upmarket place to stay. Here huge advertising hoardings flank the sides of the pistes, and tinny classical music – ranging from wartime concert hall, to Last Night of the Proms – rings out from battered loudspeakers, interspersed regularly by muffled safety announcements.
Image: Getty Images
Skiing in Asia is unlike anything you’d find in continental Europe, and its biggest resorts are a fraction of the size of even medium European areas. There might not be long pistes, glitzy bars or restaurants, but the new stations have a quirkiness that simply cannot be rivalled in any established skiing territory.
For Paul Mathews, the surge in the popularity of skiing in the East is proving lucrative. He tips Chongli Thaiwoo, in China – which has been designed entirely by Ecosign – as the next hot destination. The first phase of this new and “beautiful” resort opened last December. Mathews says the “ski terrain is awesome” and that the resort is on course to become “China’s best”.
Of course, despite this, it’s unlikely that many Europeans will be opting to ski in the Far East any time soon. However, it is vital to consider the impact Asia’s boom will have on the ski market. With a massive population, and such a marked increase in interest in winter sports, Asia provides a potential lifeline for the struggling ski industry as more resorts open, and more people become hooked on skiing.
TLDR: Probably yes, but that's not to say skiing in the rest of the world will end.