Warming up to winter sports

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Chongli, about 150 kilometers northwest of Beijing, has become a mecca for China's fast-growing band of skiing enthusiasts in the three years since the capital successfully bid to co-host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Skiers compete in a race at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Chongli district, Zhangjiakou, Hebei province. [Photo/China Daily]

Even though 35-year-old Wang Yang, a media worker and enthusiastic skier from Beijing, knows the ski resorts will be crowded at this time of the year, he's maintaining his weekly routine of trips to Chongli, a district in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province.

To escape the stress of city life, he drives three and a half hours every weekend from his home in western Beijing's Gongzhufen area to Genting Resort Secret Garden, a ski resort in Chongli.

"I have been enchanted with skiing for seven years," Wang said, adding that the thrill of skiing down a snow-covered mountain at high speed always makes him eager to go again.

He used to ski closer to home but has opted for Chongli as a regular skiing spot in recent years because it has become a "big star" in the skiing world since July 2015, when Beijing won the right to co-host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Chongli will hold 50 Olympic events in six disciplines-snowboarding, freestyle skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined and biathlon-according to the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

"It's a great thrill for a ski-lover like me to play at a host venue for an Olympic Games because all of its infrastructure must be at international level," Wang said.

Hosting the Winter Olympics has given Chongli great momentum to further develop its winter sports industry.

A winter sports destination for two decades, the district now boasts seven resorts for skiing and skating, four of which are listed among the top 10 in China, according to its tourism bureau.

The resorts have 169 ski slopes with a total length of 162 kilometers, and can host more than 50,000 skiers a day.

In 2017, about 4 million tourists visited Chongli, mainly for skiing, three times as many as in 2012, according to the district's tourism bureau.

Thaiwoo Ski Resort, a resort in Chongli with 34 ski slopes covering 800,000 square meters, expects to receive 250,000 visitors during the 2018-19 winter season, which runs from November to April, according to its marketing director, Wu Qiong.

"The number of visitors will be five times greater than during the 2015-16 winter season, the first after Beijing won the bid," Wu said.

He said the resort will see many more winter tourists in the coming years because a high-speed railway line linking Beijing with Zhangjiakou will be put into operation this year.

"About 90 percent of our visitors are from neighboring places, including Beijing, Tianjin and other cities in Hebei," Wu said.

The train will cut the travel time from Beijing to Zhangjiakou to about one hour and make tourists' travel much easier, he said.

Tourism flourishing

The winter tourism boom in Chongli is emblematic of a widespread phenomenon.

Chongli and Beijing's Yanqing district, spurred by preparations for hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, are just two popular winter tourism destinations attracting growing numbers of tourists.

China's northeastern provinces-Heilongjiang and Jilin-have long been the country's traditional hot spots for winter tourism due to their cold, snowy winters, and there are also some emerging destinations for winter tourism, including the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and the provinces of Liaoning, Qinghai and Gansu, according to the China Tourism Academy.

Yang Xue, a 29-year-old resident of Baotou, Inner Mongolia, started to ski last year after being intrigued by her friends' social media postings about the sport.

"Many of my friends have been participating in winter sports in recent years and they seemed to be having much fun," Yang said, adding that she had skied twice at a new resort in a suburb of Baotou.

To promote winter sports, Inner Mongolia plans to build more than 200 skating rinks and 30 ski resorts by 2025, Inner Mongolia Daily reported.

The number of winter tourists in China reached 170 million in the 2016-17 season, with revenue from winter tourism reaching 270 billion yuan ($39 billion), according to statistics from the China Tourism Academy. It forecast that winter tourist numbers will rise to 340 million in the 2021-22 season, with revenue of 670 billion yuan.

The flourishing winter tourism in China has also attracted overseas enthusiasts.

Ted Wood, 56, founder of the International Sports and Media Development Group, grew up skiing in his hometown close to Lake Placid, New York, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980.

He said winter sports are becoming a bigger part of Chinese leisure activities as the country prepares for the Winter Olympics.

"Winter sports are getting more Chinese out of their homes to do healthy exercise in the cold, escape from the stress of life, and enjoy the fresh air that us skiers love, " Wood said.

Attracted by the rapid development of winter sports in China, Wood plans to spend part of the year in China in the future.

He is exploring the establishment of an "East West winter sports association", which would focus on winter sports development in China and link those interested in it with the rest of the world.

"Prospects for winter sports in China are very good because many people in the West want to visit China, to ski or skate or to do related business," Wood said.

Infrastructure strengthened

However, Chinese people's participation in winter sports is still at a low level, and most people only go skiing or skating occasionally, Li Shuwang, executive director of the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center affiliated with Renmin University of China, said in an interview with Guangming Daily.

The number of visitors participating in winter sports only accounted for 27.6 percent of tourists during the 2016-17 winter season, according to the China Tourism Academy, with the rest traveling to see winter scenery or exhibitions.

A study by the National Survey Research Center at Renmin University showed that about 62 million Chinese participated in ice and snow sports from 2017 to 2018, around 5 percent of the country's population.

"Insufficient infrastructure is the biggest barrier for the masses to participate in winter sports," Wang Weidong, deputy head of the center, told Guangming Daily.

He said China has 0.2 ski resorts per million people, compared with 31.75 in Austria, 24.25 in Switzerland, and 8.23 in Canada.

Convenient and economical ski resorts are needed to popularize ice and snow sports, Wang Weidong said.

China launched ice and snow sports development plans in 2016 that aim to see the value of the industry reach 600 billion yuan by 2020.

The country also aims to have 650 skating rinks by 2022, up from 200 in 2015, and 800 ski resorts, up from 500.

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