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Skiing: the latest obsession for China’s wealthy

Thursday, 26 Mar 2015 17:00   |   By Wall Street Journal

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Skiing is taking off in a big way in China. Beijing sees the sport as part of its “China dream,” while entrepreneurs from the country’s ultracompetitive business world are rapidly embracing the thrill of life on the edge.

China is looking to the Olympics to validate its status as a winter sports center. This week, the International Olympic Committee carried out a five-day inspection of Beijing and nearby Zhangjiakou as part of China’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Under the proposal, Beijing would host the ice sports while the snow sports would take place 160 kilometers to the northwest in Zhangjiakou. It is competing for the bid with Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Winter sports are still a luxury in China, where only about 10 million people, or 1% of the population, ski, according to the China Ski Association. But the country wants to use the excitement of the Winter Games to get 300 million people out on the slopes in the next few years.

Winning the Olympic bid would bring lots of national pride — making the Chinese capital the first city to host both the summer and winter games. Investment has already poured into Zhangjiakou, one of the country’s poorest cities. Malaysia’s Genting Bhd. built China’s largest ski resort there, with 87 runs and lots of apartments.

In a country where speed is highly valued, skiing has replaced golf as the new obsession for wealthy Chinese. Many Internet entrepreneurs are ski enthusiasts, including Lei Jun, founder of smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc., Robin Li, founder of Chinese search engine Baidu, and Gary Wang, founder of online video site Tudou.com and Light Chaser Animation Studios.

“Skiing is about overcoming your fear and enjoying the fun,” said Sheng Fu, chief executive of Cheetah Mobile Inc., a Beijing-based mobile browser and security company. “I love it because you have to overcome human instinct—the more scared you are, the more you should lean forward.”

Mr. Fu’s first ski trip was last year, when Xiaomi’s Mr. Lei, who is also chairman of Cheetah, took him and a few other businessmen to Lake Tahoe in California. Mr. Fu said he was proud to be praised as a fast learner by Mr. Lei, who he says is an excellent skier. Since then, Mr. Fu has skied in Hokkaido, Japan, and near Beijing. He’s encouraging his staffers to ski as well. He installed ski racks on the roofs of the BMW SUVs he gave to top-performing employees this year.

Every winter, Chinese entrepreneurs gather in Yabuli, a ski resort in northeastern Heilongjiang province, for the China Entrepreneurs conference. Until recently, the only people who ventured onto the slopes were U.S.-educated businessmen such as Tudou’s Mr. Wang, Wu Ying, co-founder of U.S. telecom infrastructure provider UT Starcom Inc., and Li Yifei, China chair for hedge fund Man Group. Most other entrepreneurs remained huddled indoors.

But that has changed, as more people adopt a healthier, outdoor-focused lifestyle. Guo Guangchang, the founder of Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group, has long enjoyed tai chi, the slow-moving form of Chinese martial arts that stresses balance. Recently, he has also picked up skiing. Although he was limping after hitting the slopes at Yabuli, he said during a session at the conference that he enjoyed it.

“Skiing is risky, but running a business is even riskier,” said Mr. Guo.

Resorts in China have just had their best ski season ever. Attendance at Wanda Changbaishan Resort in northern Jilin province jumped to 240,000 this year from 150,000 last year for the season. During the peak Lunar New Year holiday week, demand was so high that ski rentals were limited to only half a day so others could have a chance to rent the gear.

The crowds of novices have made skiing in China dangerous. Daring new skiers hit the advanced slopes after just a day or two of practice, racing down in straight lines. Resort operators have lined the slopes with nets, but instructors say skiers still fly over them on a daily basis.

Chinese people’s new obsession has been a godsend for resorts in Japan and Canada, which are eager to look for new markets to make up for sluggish domestic demand. The number of people using China Unionpay credit cards at Outlet Mall Rera in Hokkaido quadrupled during this year’s Lunar New Year holiday compared with the same period a year ago.

Mainland Chinese tourists are a still small percentage at Canadian resort Whistler Blackcomb, but their presence can be increasingly felt in the shops, on beginner trails and in private lessons.

Skiing has become part of a new lifestyle for Danny Ju, a business owner in Guangzhou. He enjoyed his first trip to Whistler earlier this year so much that he bought a custom pair of $1,300 boots. “I’m going to ski more in the future, so it’s nice to have a pair that fits me,” he said.

Original title by Wall Street Journal: Skiing Is the Latest Obsession for China’s Wealthy

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