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Chongli rides Olympic wave to gain reputation as top Asian ski destination

By DJ CLARK in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-08 09:09

A young British skier tries snowboarding at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Chongli, Hebei province, in December. ZHAI YUJIA/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

In an upmarket Hong Kong sports club, there is a buzz around the bar. Over the last ski season, more Hong Kong families have opted to forgo the usual destinations in Japan, South Korea and Europe for their winter vacation to try a resort in China.

Of the 697 ski resorts currently listed in China, there is one area that is quickly gaining an international reputation. Nestled in the heart of Hebei province, just a 90-minute train ride from Beijing, lies Chongli district — a burgeoning winter sports haven that has seen an astronomical rise in popularity over the past decade.

"The ski quality is consistent here," French skier Thibault Subtil explains. "It is different from other places because they have many snow cannons and cold temperatures that means they can guarantee the same level of snow every day. It is good for families of different levels wanting a winter sports vacation."

There are seven ski resorts all within a 30-minute drive of the main town, providing different options for enthusiasts of all levels. This transformation is not just a testament to China's growing love affair with skiing but also marks Chongli as a formidable competitor to the traditional ski destinations scattered across Asia.

Much of the growth in the sport has happened in the last 10 years, spurred by the country's drive to get 300 million people involved in winter sports — a key feature of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics bid. Winter sports have been on the rise since. The General Administration of Sport reported that visitors to 19 national ski resorts had reached 9.43 million in the first two months of the 2023/24 ski season, up 316 percent year-on-year, with revenue also up 543 percent year-on-year.

"The skiing here is a very different experience to Europe," says French ski instructor Matteo Lucatteli, who has been working in Hebei this season. "Here you have very little snowfall in the winter, so there is very little opportunity to ski off-piste or go backcountry. But for learning to ski, racing and performance, it is excellent as you can ski the whole day with the same snow quality."

There are seven public ski resorts in Chongli, all of which cater to different needs. Cuiyunshan (also known as Galaxy) and Shixuechuan (also known as Anaya) only have a few easy runs and are designed more for a first-time ski experience.

Dolomiti Ski Resort, one of the smaller resorts, has matured into a family-friendly destination known for its attractive deals and New Zealand ski school. Despite its compact size, Dolomiti boasts 9 kilometers of slopes, predominantly catering to beginners and intermediates.

Thirteen-year-old Ju Yantian comes to Dolomiti regularly from Beijing to hone his snowboarding skills and take advantage of the international ski instructors. "This place does not have many people, so it is good for training. I prefer to ski in Wanlong, but here I can do more runs in a day."

Contrasting the quaint charm of Dolomiti, Fulong Ski Resort is a lively hub at the edge of Chongli town. With 25 km of ski runs and a distinct favor toward blue and black slopes, Fulong caters to a younger, more experienced crowd while still offering options for beginners.

Standing in the massive ski hall surrounded by local and international ski equipment, outdoor clothing stores and fast-food restaurants, Fulong Resort marketing manager Yan Sun explains: "Fulong offers the full package. We have full-service hotels catering to a wide variety of budgets and tastes, as well as a broad range of slopes for all levels."

The resort's proximity to the town enriches the apres-ski experience with a plethora of dining and entertainment choices. A ticket to the on-site circus is often included in a package deal. Notably, Fulong prides itself on housing Asia's largest snow park and offers night skiing (free for ladies on Tuesdays), making it a magnet for young snowboarders. Yan claims that 80 percent of visitors prefer the board to a pair of skis.

A short drive outside the town center, Wanlong Ski Resort stands out as Chongli's largest. Opening its doors in 2003, Wanlong was the first resort in town and has seen significant investment, boasting extensive snow-making capabilities that ensure a long ski season.

"We were the first resort so we picked the best spot," says Yu Liu, Wanlong's public relations officer, referring to the northern-facing slopes that shield them from the sun and extend the ski season.

A hop over the hill from Wanlong, Genting, also known as Secret Garden, offers the prestige of skiing on an Olympic slope. Despite the expected crowds and higher prices, the resort ensures a smooth experience with English-speaking staff and international signage. There are of course extra bragging rights to say you have taken on an Olympic ski run, and those that have the ability can also have a go at the Olympic half pipe that is also open to the public.

Opened in 2016, Thaiwoo Ski Resort is uniquely positioned against the backdrop of the Great Wall and has traditionally been the most popular with international guests.

International Manager of the Swiss Ski School in Thaiwoo, Thierry le Bigot explains the attraction. "Thaiwoo is the closest of the Chongli resorts to Beijing. Getting here is very simple, and it offers everything you would expect from an international quality ski resort."

Thaiwoo distinguishes itself with 20 km of diverse runs and a vibrant ski village built on a model of Whistler in Canada, which adds a touch of charm.

Each resort is set up for short-term stays, with most booking apps offering a hotel room packaged with two breakfasts and two ski passes. Ski equipment, including clothing and helmets, can be added to the hotel packages. The two reporters working on this story skied in five of the resorts in Chongli and found each extremely efficient in picking up passes, boots and skis, making it quite possible to ski at more than one resort in one visit. One reporter, who only speaks a little Chinese, had to visit the local hospital after a bad fall and found they, too, were well set up for international visitors.

Back in the Hong Kong sports club, the secret is out. China's ski resorts have developed significantly during the last few years, partly because of the Olympic push. With fast trains and expressways directly from Beijing combined with new hotels and expanded ski slopes, Chongli now competes favorably with any of its competition in Asia, and at a significantly cheaper rate.

Jack Yao contributed to this story.

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