With the 23rd edition of the Winter Olympics having just closed in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the baton has officially been passed to Beijing, which will host the games’ next instalment in February 2022, thereby making the Chinese capital the first city to host both the summer and winter events.
Nevertheless, the Pyeongchang games suggested there’s room for the future host nation to improve, with China topping the podium only once in the men’s 500 metres short track speed skating and finishing 16th in the overall standings. While China’s haul also included six silver and two bronze medals (another four of which came in skating events), it will have to up its game if it is to retain some pride when the sporting world shifts its attention towards Beijing in four years’ time.
Over the next Olympiad (as the ancient Greeks called the four year period between events) relative winter sport newcomer China is focusing not only on improving the quality of its own athletes, but also on generating greater interest in the games among the general public. In 2016 the Beijing government stated that it aims to turn 300 million Chinese into winter sports fans in time for the 2022 games – a target that has become increasingly pressing in light of low attendance numbers at many events in Pyeongchang, as well as questions already being raised about many of the facilities used in Korea becoming idle ‘white elephants’.
While there are currently an estimated 11 million skiers in China and an ever-growing list of resorts to accommodate them, outbound destinations are well-positioned to benefit from the prospective boom in Chinese winter sports. With domestic resorts being largely aimed at beginners, many Chinese winter sports enthusiasts eager to develop their skills at a higher level will be turning their attention abroad.
Currently, the top overseas winter sports destinations among the Chinese market are South Korea and Japan, with their relative ease of access enabling committed skiers to travel to high-quality resorts with little hassle. For many skiing resorts in destinations further afield, however, experiences with the Chinese market have largely proven to be different.
Speaking recently with China-based digital marketing agency Dragon Trail, Rowena Phillips at Matterhorn Diamonds, based in Zermatt, Switzerland, explained that, contrary to expectations, it is not high-level skiers travelling as FITs driving the growth in winter sports among the Chinese outbound market, but groups – most of whom turn to tour operators to book full packages providing them with lessons as well as equipment rental and lift passes.
Phillips noted that: “Some of the older generation may have skied in Korea or in China, but the majority have never put a ski boot on before”. She furthered: “A lot of the time we have clients who are only in Zermatt for a very short period of time and therefore only take a half day or couple of half days. The clients we have taught so far love being in the mountains and being able to see the Matterhorn, and have enjoyed the feeling of getting skis on for the first time and learning the basics.”
Emphasising the need to sell skiing as part of a wider thematic package, Phillips underlined: “[The Chinese] just want the sensation of skiing, and we ensure we help them get some great pictures, especially of course, with the Matterhorn in the background.”
The same trends were also reflected in the North American market, as explained to Dragon Trail by Lukas Prochazka, Business Development Manager for Asia at Canada’s Banff and Lake Louise Tourism. Highlighting the focus on a wide range of activities sought by Chinese customers in Banff, he explained: “For Chinese travellers, their ski holidays typically include two or three days of skiing, but also non-ski winter adventures, shopping, spa, fine local dining experiences etc.” This could be combined with a wide range of other outdoors winter-related activities, he added, ranging from: “ice walking, dog sledding, sleigh rides, ice skating, hot springs” and even helicopter sightseeing tours.
All in all, given the Chinese market’s relative inexperience in high-level participation, the government-backed push to grow public interest in winter sports may not necessarily see China top the medal table in Beijing in four years’ time. However, with the growing curiosity towards a wider range of alpine leisure activities among the Chinese consumer classes, it is not just overseas ski resorts that can benefit from this potential boom, but also a wide range of tourism service providers that may wish to capitalise by tying in Chinese-suitable activities with ski-experience packages.
(Aside: Should China not be able to replicate the success it has become accustomed to at summer games at Beijing 2022, it can take solace in the fact that an underperforming host nation is not without precedent at the Winter Olympics. Yugoslavia took home only a solitary silver at the 1984 Sarajevo games, leaving it ranked 14th overall, while winter sports giant Canada won only two silver and three bronze medals at the 1988 games in Calgary, which saw it languish at an unseemly 13th place in the final medal table.)
To read more on the topic of the development of skiing in Chinese outbound tourism, you can refer to Sienna Parulis-Cook’s recent article “How to Attract Chinese Skiers Overseas” on the Dragon Trail Interactive website.