China outlines winter sport ambitions with world's biggest indoor ski resort

Booming leisure and entertainment market as venues spring up

People ski at Wanda's world's largest indoor ski resort during the opening of the resort in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, north-eastern China.  Wu Hong : EPA
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The world's biggest indoor ski resort has arrived but, for once, it is not a claim to fame that Dubai can make.

The super-cool new facility is situated within a mega-development in the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

The huge resort that includes the ski slopes was the brainchild of China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, who surprised many by this week selling most of his mammoth leisure and amusement business for US$9.3 billion just 10 days after the Harbin development opened. While the deal involved 13 cultural tourism projects and 76 hotels within Mr Wang's Dalian Wanda Group's tourism portfolio, which have been bought by the Tianjin-based property developer Sunac, it is not yet clear if the property handover will include the Harbin ski resort.

The resort is part of China's ambitious plans to develop both top-notch skiing facilities and world-class skiers ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Zhangjiakou, near Beijing. Several other ski resorts are being built all over China by a number of developers and the government is pushing for the creation of many more to meet its target of creating 240 dedicated ski slopes before the Winter Olympics.

Harbin, the provincial capital of Heileogong, which borders Russia, is renowned or the creation of building-sized ice sculptures that depict the world's landmarks and heritage sites, such as the Taj Mahal, during the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival every year.

“Harbin is known as the city of ice, which also happens to be the main theme of this resort, so we will together provide winter sports throughout the year,” Mr Wang said at the opening ceremony at the end of last month. Last year, he announced plans to build the world's highest ski resort in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Mr Wang is trying to tap a booming theme park and sports market in China that, according to the industry consultancy Aecom, will overtake the United States in terms of market size by 2020. It estimated that 59 new theme parks will open in China by 2020, serving an estimated 220 million visitors. Globally, the major theme park operators continued their positive performance last year, with a 4.3 per cent increase in overall business volume growing from 420 million to 438 million annual attendees over the year, according to the latest annual report from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and the Economics practice at Aecom.

Dalian Wanda Group has built five other theme parks to expand its leisure and entertainment business in the face of stiff competition from Disneyland and Universal Studios. In June last year, Disneyland opened in Shanghai – its second park in China after its first opened in Hong Kong.

The Harbin resort covers 80 hectares and is located within the $6bn Harbin Wanda City. Shaped like an enormous grand piano, the indoor ski stadium can accommodate up to 3,000 skiers and snowboarders.

The resort also includes an outdoor Wanda theme park, Wanda movie park, central grand theatre, high-end holiday hotels and commercial centres. A 15,000 square metre snow entertainment area is inside the ski resort and the main skiing area itself is 80,000 square metres with six different runs on three separate levels.

The resort's main run is 60 metres wide and 500 metres long, making it the fourth-longest indoor run in the world. It still pales alongside Dubai's main run, which is the world's longest at 1.2 kilometres. The Chinese facility also boasts two black runs for the most proficient skiers and snowboarders, a blue run, a snow play area. There are also two 40-metre beginner slopes.

The Harbin ski facility is expecting 400,000 visitors by the end of 2017 and the resort will hire up to 30,000 people when it is fully completed, Mr Wang says.

North-eastern China already has several open-air  ski resorts, which includes Yabuli, about 180km from Harbin, which had hosted the Winter Asian Games as early as 1996. Wanda group also operates a ski resort at Changbaishan in nearby Jilin province.

While Dalian Wanda tries to be different from Disneyland by including a wider range of resort facilities such as schools, for instance, it has not been able to match the US company in terms of investment. In a bid to counter the US firm's strength, Wanda Group recently hired Andrew Kam, a former executive at Hong Kong Disneyland, to be the vice president of Wanda Culture Industry Group.

"Harbin is a brand-new community that includes not only a theme park, but also a school, a hospital, housing and hotels," Mr Kam says. " There is nothing like this before."

It was China's drive to build skiing facilities and the country's growing interest in the sport that attracted the Warren Smith Ski Academy, which became the first British ski school to open shop in the country last winter, at the resort of Wanlong in Hebei province.

“It’s almost as if winning the 2022 Winter Olympics bid has put skiers in China into panic mode – they really want to get better at skiing, and fast,” says the ski school founder Warren Smith. "We want to grow our presence [in China] in the future."

Despite the sudden push for all things snowy, north-eastern already China has several traditional open-air ski resorts including Yabuli, about 180km away from Harbin, and Changbaishan, which is located in the nearby Jilin province. But Dalian Wanda decided to invest in an indoor facility, in part because that way premium snow conditions are guaranteed year-round.

Ticket pricing at Wanda's Harbin resort, which includes rides in the amusement part, are structured differently to Shanghai's Disneyland, which charges 370 yuan (Dh198) during low season and 499 yuan during peak season. Wanda's lowest price starts at 68 yuan for an adult for a two-hour tour of the snow castle for an adult and goes up to 488 yuan for unlimited use of the ski slope.

Wanda has also invested in similar multi-purpose resorts in Nanchang and Hefei, the capital of Hefei province. It recently announced plans to establish Wanda Cities in second-tier cities, including Chengdu, Wuxi, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Haikou, Urumqi and Xiamen. These are part of a larger plan to develop as many as 20 Wanda Cities nationwide by 2020. The idea is to make the most of the booming leisure and tourism market in China. The state-run China national tourism administration expects will grow to 10 trillion yuan by 2020.

Mr Kam points out that Wanda City resorts in Hefei and Nanchang each attracted about 1 million visitors during the national day holiday alone last October.

So with the vast potential of snow resorts in China allied to the state's determination to have Chinese skiers and snowboarders among the medals in five years, it seems the ski resort market there is only set to heat up.