Coasting toward gains despite COVID-19

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) – Booming winter sports may shrug off epidemic impact in the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

In 2015, when Beijing bid successfully to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, a multibillion-dollar boom in China’s winter sports industry was foreseen in the run-up to the Games.

Winters would be transformed from dull, dark months into the year’s most anticipated season with indoor and outdoor fun activities galore.

By the end of last year, that dream not only became a reality but is continuing to have a positive knock-on effect on tourism, construction, transport, and other industries, generating thousands of new jobs, helping bolster economic growth and reinforcing general consumption upgrade nationwide-proof of the rising discretionary spending among the newly affluent middle-income Chinese.

To be sure, this year’s COVID-19 epidemic has dented the peak-season business; but, the gains made already are creating robust confidence that the short-term pains would not hurt the long-term prospects, industry insiders said.

Their optimism stems from undeniable data. In 2010, China had just 270 skiing venues. That number swelled to a staggering 770 by 2019, according to a February 2019 research report from the Beijing Ski Association.

Heilongjiang province in Northeast China, which boasts stunning natural snow and ice resources, alone has as many as 124 skiing venues.

Even at the county or city district level, ice and snow sports facilities are ubiquitous. For instance, Chongli district of Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, already has three major skiing centres in Thaiwoo Ski Resort, Genting Resort Secret Garden, and Wanlong Paradise Resort.

Just 200 kilometres north-west of Beijing, Chongli is among the three competition zones of the 2022 Games. The explosion of skiing facilities correlates with Chinese people’s enthusiasm for winter sports. Chongli’s tourism rode the winter sports wave to reach 157.5 million yuan ($22.6 million) during the 2019 Spring Festival holiday.

Nearly 21 million people went skiing last year in China, up 6 per cent year-on-year. Thaiwoo Ski Resort said it received more than 8,000 tourists daily on average during the Spring Festival holiday last year, a record high since it started operations in 2015. Genting and Wanlong also reported heavy footfalls and revenue surges.

The action is not limited to north-eastern parts. Hebei, Jilin and Qinghai provinces, and the national capital Beijing, are among the areas that saw the highest skier growth rates as well as big sectoral investments.

According to a report from Beijing-based consultancy Intelligence Research Group, China’s winter sports market recorded 2018 sales revenue of 394.5 billion yuan, up more than 10 per cent year-on-year. The snow sports segment alone grew by 19.5 per cent to 32.5 billion yuan, or more than 8 per cent of the total.

That was in line with the national goal of expanding the winter sports market size to 800 billion yuan and involving 300 million people in ice and snow sports by 2022.

A development plan announced last March envisages mass-level ice and snow activities, and promotion of related sports into a season-agnostic industry.

Small wonder, middle and high schools now include winter sports in their annual outdoor activities for students. And Chinese have taken a shine to curling, a winter sport popular in the West.

Although all signs point to a boom, industry insiders are quick to clarify this is the beginning still, given that the industry in developed economies took four to five decades to reach its massive scale.

But even they can’t hide their joy that big-ticket companies such as China Construction First Group Corp, a wholly-owned subsidiary of State-owned China Construction Engineering Corp, are involved in creating terrific infrastructure for the 2022 Games.

The company has completed the construction of the ultra-modern curling venue called the Water Cube for the 2022 Games at the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing, which opened to public in December.

“It took us less than a year to transform the Cube’s original main pool into a curling venue that meets Olympic standards,” said Huo Wenzhen, Party secretary of the transformation project team of CCFGC. Incidentally, the company was the main builder of the NAC for the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008.

“During this period, we not only transformed a water pool into four ice sheets filled with steel structures to host curling, but finished other construction work necessary for the Olympic main venue, including the lighting system, the ice-making system and the air-conditioning system. The venue is now available for contests and public use,” Huo said.

The venue has been used as a competition venue for the China Junior Curling Open 2019. It will hold curling events on demand this year.

“Visitors coming to the Water Cube for a curling play in the venue increased to almost 300 daily before Spring Festival,” Huo said.

The practice of a 60-yuan entry ticket, with free elementary lessons by professionals, makes the venue within the reach of most visitors to enjoy the winter sport. The Cube’s central location in downtown Beijing well connected by subway lines makes it a popular attraction throughout the year, he said.

Agreed Ricca Wen, a junior-school student in Beijing. For her, playing at the “Ice Cube”-it is a nickname for the venue-is a dream come true. “The task of moving a stone forward into a circle on ice may sound easy, but, trust me, it can drive you mad,” Wen said. She and her parents were playing curling for the very first time.

“Many of my classmates told me curling’s great fun. But my dad was a bit sceptical initially. But now, as you can see, he’s quite busy using his stone to hit mine out of the circle.”

Wen shared images of the family’s icy outing on social media, winning dozens of likes from her classmates, neighbours, even potential visitors.

Those who prefer outdoor winter sports but hate to negotiate possible heavy highway traffic settle for high-speed trains connecting Beijing and Zhangjiakou. Ray He, 35, does that during winters. He normally has little time for anything other than his business of distributing films and documentaries, and home responsibilities like changing diapers of his one-year-old daughter.

But, in winters, “there is always time for skiing”. He said: “I got my first snowboard back in 2000. Back then, there were very few ski venues in or around Beijing. Now, they have sprouted like mushrooms, offering plenty of alternatives including Thaiwoo, my preferred destination.”

Lots of interesting services, up-to-date gear and accessible good-quality accommodation in the vicinity make new facilities outstanding, he said. “Catering services and shopping areas are integrated, making these new venues lifestyle options.”

Liu Fengxi, a winter sports market analyst and founder of ski gear-maker Nobaday, said: “Many resorts are willing to lower their prices to lure more customers. What’s more, lots of newcomers are awaiting government approvals to build more venues. The resorts in China still lack in operational experience. But the quality of infrastructure and services will improve as focus shifts to hiring and training of professionals, hosting international events, ensuring facilities are multi-functional to meet the needs of various consumer groups.”

On the impact of the epidemic on the sector, Liu said a shakeout may eliminate some small-sized resorts set up by fund-strapped startups, while some major ones may report substantial losses. “But the pain will be short-term as overall demand won’t lose its momentum.”

Zhu Wenqian contributed to the story.


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