China builds slopes, hopes for skiers

Investors predict the number of Chinese skiers will jump to between 1 and 5 million by 2005.

There's just one easy slope. All the snow is man-made. And at the bottom of their run, skiers glide to a halt before the tomb of Emperor Chongzhen, who rests eternally amid groves of ancient cypress and ginkgo trees.

For Beijing's plutocrats, it's an opportunity to hurl themselves down the piste while enjoying the unique protection of imperial fengshui. But in a country more associated with martial arts than downhill racers, the scene at Snow World Resort can be a surprising sight.

"I am impressed anyone here seemed to know what they were doing," says David Luo, a recent returnee from Canada who was enjoying the slope. "I didn't think anyone had the first idea about skiing in China."

Ten years ago, just a few hundred people skied in China. But developers are increasingly seeing gold in the sport. Spurred by their countrymen's warm embrace of capitalist leisure pursuits, they are building furiously - even in areas, like Beijing, where it rarely snows - and claiming that there will be between 1 million and 5 million aficionados by 2005.

"This is going to be big business," promises Miss Li Xuemin at the Beijing Tourist office.

Some might take issue with such confidence. China is littered with bowling centers, luxury golf courses, and amusement parks whose locked gates or thin crowds attest to a wild overestimation of the spending power of China's middle class. Still, undaunted, many would-be magnates are pressing ahead.

In the 1990s, investors were lured into the market by figures from the World Bank, which indicated that per capita purchasing power to be $2,300 - up from $230. But while average urban incomes are stuck at about $800 per year, economists say investors may have more reason for hope.

In 2002, China overtook the US as the world's largest destination for foreign investment when it attracted a record $50 billion, a quarter of which went into the service sector. Consumption was up 10 percent last year, and the country registered record sales of houses and cars. Chinese economists are confidently predicting that by 2005, 200 million Chinese will boast a middle-class income.

"Private consumption demand is pretty good," says Jonathan Anderson, a senior economist at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong.

But more may lie behind the building boom than plain economics. Often, if one of China's big cities gets a fancy facility, all the others want the same - even if there isn't room for everyone to play.

Hong Kong had been assured that when its $2.8 billion Disney Park opens in 2005, it would be China's only major amusement park. But Universal Studios has just unveiled plans for a $870 million theme park in Shanghai, even though many of the hundred or so smaller parks which sprang up in China during the 1990s went bust. Disney is also giving way to pressure to open another park in Beijing in 2008.

This point-counterpoint development is why Lilian Li, who returned home to set up Snow World after 15 years in California, now finds she is competing with 10 ski resorts that have opened around China's capital in the last two years. In December, the biggest ski resort opened at Nanshan, an hour's drive from the city center. It boasts a double chair lift and Swiss-style wooden chalets.

"There's nothing else to do in winter," argues Nanshan's boss, Lu Jian, who invested nearly $5 million in the resort. Last season, he says, 200,000 Beijingers tried skiing. This year he expects that number will double.

"The sport has to get cheaper to take off but the future's out there," says Nanshan's Austrian snowboard instructor, Stephan Zdarsky.

The fact that Beijing is unblessed by two of the key requirements for any winter sports center - snow and mountains - does not seem to dampen these hopes. Cui Xiaoming, chairman of the Beijing Four Seasons Ski Co, simply sees this as all the more reason to invest in a giant indoor skiing facility.

"Beijing's 10 outdoor ski resorts are now crowded during the weekends in winter, especially on holidays," he says to justify building 132,000 square meters of artificial slopes that will be the world's largest indoor ski resort.

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