In Wuxi, an hour by bullet train from Shanghai, it almost never snows. Nevertheless, Lily Li snowboards here: in a ski hall. “If you live in southern China and want to be active in this way,” says the marketing assistant, “there aren’t many alternatives.”
The Chinese is snowboarding for the fourth time today. She has never ridden in the mountains: «It’s easier to start indoors. It’s very dangerous outside.”
China is a young winter sports nation. Like Lily Li, many Chinese are just discovering skiing and snowboarding. Indoor systems are playing an increasingly important role.
China is the world’s largest market for indoor skiing
Most of the ski halls in China, like those in Wuxi, are in a big city. They are often open all year round and are combined with a shopping mall. Everything from skis to ski clothing can be rented on site. Admission, including equipment, costs between 40 and 80 francs, depending on the size of the hall.
The hall in Wuxi opened three years ago. According to the operator Sunac, it already had 300,000 entries last year. The indoor skiing business is growing rapidly across China. In 2013 there were only 5 ski halls. Today it is their 36.
Consultant Benny Wu collected the numbers. Every year he publishes a white paper on the Chinese ski industry: “Today, China is the world’s largest market for indoor skiing.” No other country has more ski halls than China.
The indoor ski boom is far from over. According to Benny Wu, around 20 more halls are currently under construction: “It is very likely that there will be more than 50 ski halls in China within 2 to 3 years.” The world’s largest ski hall with an area of 90,000 square meters is scheduled to open in Shanghai at the end of 2022.
Beijing wants to get 300 million Chinese interested in winter sports
The indoor ski fever is prescribed from the very top. In 2015, when China won the bid for the Winter Olympics, President Xi Jinping set himself an ambitious goal. By the Games in February 2022, 300 million Chinese are expected to come into contact with winter sports – around a quarter of the population.
With the government campaign “300 million ice and snow sports enthusiasts” all provinces in the country are encouraged to promote winter sports.
For this dream, the state invested billions of Swiss francs in winter sports. “Many cities in China don’t have any mountains and therefore no possibility for outdoor ski areas,” says Benny Wu. “But with the government campaign “300 million ice and snow athletes” all provinces in the country are encouraged to promote winter sports.” In other words, those cities that don’t have any outdoor options rely on indoor snow sports.
In addition to ski halls, business with ski simulators is also booming
Snow51 also benefits from the state-ordered enthusiasm for winter sports. The Chinese-Austrian start-up specializes in indoor ski training on carpet simulators. Founded in 2017, Snow51 already operates 20 stores in China. Two more are scheduled to open in January alone.
Interview with Bernhard Ratschiller, Technical Manager Snow51
Indoor skiing is generally booming in China, why?
You have no other option due to the geographical location. They lack the mountains to use, like we do in the Alps. That is why they enable winter sports through such institutions with indoor carpets or an indoor ski hall.
What role will the upcoming Olympic Games play in the ski boom?
They play a big role – without the Winter Games there would not be such a rush. This is pushed by the government. It’s advertised everywhere – in schools, on every TV show. This makes people more interested. In recent years we have grown from 30 employees to over 400. This shows that it really is a very steep climb.
Why won’t China catch up with the big ski nations like the USA, Austria, France or Switzerland so quickly after all?
Because this is a sport and not a technology that you can simply adopt. We have built up the methodological principles and training opportunities over the last 60 to 100 years in Europe and the USA. Establishing this in a nation simply takes time. The generations have to grow up with it, have to develop an awareness and understanding of the sport. There is no question that they will make it – but in the next five to six years that is rather unrealistic. But definitely in the next 20 years.
The simulator is nothing more than a four meter wide carpet conveyor belt. Incline and speed can be adjusted depending on the level of difficulty. So that the friction on the carpet is not too great, it must be constantly moistened.
According to Bernhard Ratschiller, technical director of Snow51, this is also the biggest difference to driving on snow: “You always have this feeling of resistance. But you don’t feel this resistance when you walk in the snow, you just slide.”
The main goal is that customers can ski down the mountain from the start and not waste hours in the beginner’s area.
Nevertheless, his students would quickly get used to it. “The main goal,” says Bernhard Ratschiller, “is that customers can ski down the mountain right from the start and don’t waste hours in the beginner’s area.”
“Ski halls produce skiers like a factory”
But the indoor ski boom in China is about much more than leisure activities for city dwellers and beginners. The entire ski industry in China should benefit, explains numbers expert Benny Wu: “Ski halls cultivate new female snow sports enthusiasts 365 days a year. They constantly produce skiers like a factory.” 679 outdoor ski resorts await you in China.
Winter tourism is increasingly becoming an economic factor in China. With a market that continues to grow constantly, Benny Wu expects the country to soon catch up with the top markets: “That could be the case in about ten years.”
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, the USA, France and Austria generated around 50 million daily admissions per season. For comparison: Including indoor skiing, China currently has almost 21 million entries.
Even though millions of people are now skiing and snowboarding in China, there is still a long way to go to become a ski nation. “It’s a sport and not a technology that you can simply adopt,” explains Bernhard Ratschiller.
«We have built up snow sports in Europe and the USA over the last 60 to 100 years. Establishing this in a nation takes time. Generations have to grow up with it.” He estimates that China will be ready in twenty years at the earliest.
When I’m super experienced, I definitely go outside.
Indoor snowboarder Liliy Li has definitely caught snow sports fever: “I like the feeling of how the body is moving.” However, she wants to take her time with the first descent out on the mountain: “If I’m super experienced, I’ll definitely go outside. But before that I need more practice.”