For China, Olympic dreams and 'snow business' in winter sports boom

China will host the Winter Olympics in four years. New investments in ski resorts and other winter sports double as bets on service industries like tourism becoming a greater economic driver.

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
A group of children learns to curl at Trans Curling Club in Harbin, China. Curling, like many winter sports, has become increasingly popular in China ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

On a recent morning in this city in northeastern China, about 20 children take turns sliding heavy granite stones across a sheet of ice toward a red, white, and blue bull's-eye. Their parents look on in eager anticipation, snapping photographs from behind a plexiglass barrier.

After each child has a final turn, an instructor calls them over for a group photo on the ice before they depart. For many, it was their first attempt at curling, but Zheng Jiabin, the co-founder of the Trans Curling Club, is hopeful that it won’t be their last.

“Curling is low risk and easy to learn,” he says. “It only takes 15 minutes for us to teach a person how to play. If they play three times, they’ll be addicted.”

Curling may be one of the more obscure winter sports – it is the only one that requires brooms – but its popularity speaks to China's broader embrace of activities involving ice and snow. While much of the world is preparing for the Winter Olympics that start Feb. 9 in South Korea, China is already looking ahead to its turn.

Last November, the Chinese government announced plans to get 300 million people involved in winter sports by the time Beijing and the nearby city of Zhangjiakou host the games in 2022. Hundreds of new ice rinks and ski resorts are being built to accommodate millions of first-time skiers, hockey players, and yes, even curlers. 

“There’s no doubt that because of the Winter Olympics, we are going to promote winter sports in China to a new level,” says Tan Jianxiang, a professor of sports sociology at South China Normal University in Guangzhou. And as the living standard of millions of Chinese continues to improve, Dr. Tan adds, “our love for winter sports will last well beyond the Olympics.”

An economic dividend

China’s winter tourism industry is on track to more than double in size by 2022, according to a new report by the China Tourism Academy.  The report estimates that the number of winter tourists will increase from 170 million to 340 million over the next four years, and that the industry’s revenues will rise from 270 billion yuan ($41 billion) to 670 billion yuan ($102 billion).

Such an expansion would help China's transition from an economy that depends on credit-fueled investment and government spending in heavy industries to one anchored by consumer spending. The country’s gross domestic product grew 6.7 percent in 2016, a 26-year low, before accelerating to 6.9 percent in the three months to Sept. 30. 

China’s growth is expected to slow further, which means a greater reliance on service industries like tourism, including winter sports, to pick up the slack. 

Last December, the National Development and Reform Commission, the government agency that helps oversee economic planning, announced plans to invest 2 trillion yuan in tourism by 2020 by attracting more private investment into the industry. The commission’s goal is for tourism to contribute more than 10 percent of annual economic growth by then.

A large chunk of that growth is expected to come from China’s newfound interest in winter sports, especially among those in the country’s growing middle class. The consulting firm McKinsey estimates that China had 116 million middle-class and afluent households last year, up from 2 million in 2000. Eager for new ways to spend their disposable income, many have adopted winter pastimes such as ice skating and skiing.

“It’s increasingly obvious that industries like sports, medicine, health, and culture are the next growth points in China’s economy,” says Zhao Xijun, a finance professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “More and more middle-class people have time and money to spend on their favorite sports.”

To meet the rising demand for winter sports – and prepare for the Olympics – China announced in November 2016 that it planned to build 300 new ski resorts and 500 new ice rinks by 2022. In Beijing alone, the municipal sports bureau plans to build 66 new indoor rinks. The city now has about 30. 

Hockey slides into view

As more rinks open and excitement builds for the 2022 Games, sports like hockey have started to take off. In September, the North American-based National Hockey League played its first ever game in the country: an exhibition match between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks in Shanghai.

Meanwhile, Song Andong, the first NHL player born in China, has become a national star. The New York Islanders drafted Mr. Song in 2015, tuning him into an idol for thousands of players in youth leagues across the country.

In Harbin, a city famous for its annual ice sculpture festival, Mr. Zheng estimates that close to 10,000 people have participated in lessons and other activities at the Trans Curling Club since it opened in late June. The club is located in a massive shopping center that includes an indoor ice rink and, as its centerpiece, the world’s largest indoor ski resort. The resort has six ski runs and covers more than 64,000 square feet.

Few, if any, winter sports have received as much attention in China as skiing, which is popular among the newly rich and young urbanites. Developers have been pouring money into resorts across the country, and the government has announced that it wants 1,500 miles of new ski trails built before the 2022 Games.

With peak ski season approaching, Ren Jianjun, the founder of an outdoor adventure company in Beijing, doesn’t want to miss out. Last year, more than 2.6 million skiers visited the area of Chongli, the planned site for freestyle skiing and snowboarding events in 2022. Even more are expected to go this year.

“In big cities like Beijing, the effect of the Winter Olympics has been huge,” says Mr. Ren, whose company has organized weekend ski trips since 2013. During its first winter, only about a dozen people signed up for each trip, compared to 100 people last winter.

Ren’s biggest concern this season is the competition from new, like-minded companies. As skiing and other winter sports become more popular in China, he’s not the only one looking to cash in.

Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.

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