Chinese entrepreneurs dream of a white Chunje, with profits on the piste

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The Independent Online

Anyone dreaming of a white "Chunjie", or Spring Festival, is in luck in much of north China. Next week's lunar new year holiday has been blessed by a blanket of snow. Or cursed, if you live in the remote communities devastated by recent snowstorms across China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan.

Anyone dreaming of a white "Chunjie", or Spring Festival, is in luck in much of north China. Next week's lunar new year holiday has been blessed by a blanket of snow. Or cursed, if you live in the remote communities devastated by recent snowstorms across China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan.

Yet for a new breed of Chinese entrepreneur, the blizzards present a sparkling vista of opportunity. These businessmen threaten to drag China's middle classes out of their karaoke lounges, dress them up warmly, and cast them headlong into perilous winter sports.

From Xinjiang to Sichuan, and Guizhou to Hebei, about 100 slopes have opened to the public. China's booming travel and leisure industry had long shrunk from the frosty challenge of winter. For most Chinese, winter sports are limited to the occasional ice-skate. But entrepreneurs are now seeking profits on the piste. Ski resorts are already popular in Japan and South Korea, so it was only a matter of time before China followed suit.

The country's latest ski-park venture opened its cable-car doors on Thursday to carry skiers up hills guarding the Ming Tombs outside Beijing. Besides its peerless 'fengshui' - 13 Ming Dynasty emperors can't be wrong when seeking the optimum combination of 'wind and water' - the Beijing Snow World Entertainment Centre boasts a dream location, 40 minutes drive from the Chinese capital.

Snow World's American Chinese investor Lilian Li believes Beijing could be a big market. "People are much richer than before, but there is nothing for them to do in winter. They need some place to have fun."

Her company and its local joint venture partner have spent $1.5m (£1m) on the first-stage 340 metre slope, but promise $3.5m more to extend the park's main attraction to 1,000 metres over the next three years. She hopes to earn her investment back in five years, then watch the profits take off.

Zhao Zhihua, a planning director, says he welcomes the competition. "If there were 10 slopes in the Beijing area, it would not be too many." There are five already, but Mr Zhao's is confident in the knowledge that his 1,000-metre slope at Shijinglong, on the slopes of Guanmao mountain, Yanqing County, remains the longest.

Mr Zhao credits the two-day weekend, and improving standards of living, for rising visitor numbers at the year-old facility. This season, the municipal government has publicised a '2001 Beijing Silver Winter Ice and Snow Festival' to inform the public of the exciting possibilities in the suburbs, from skiing to skating, and sleigh-riding to ice-climbing.

The Chinese investment firm behind Shijinglong visited foreign slopes, and studied China's premier ski resort, Yabuli in Heilongjiang, host to the 1994 Asian Winter Games, before proposing a joint venture deal with Japan's Mizno. When the Japanese got cold feet, as the Asian financial crisis bit, the Chinese decided to go it alone. Zhao believes the investors will earn back their stake in three years.

Xu Gongli, investment consultant in Beijing for the Washington-based APCO Associates, agrees. "Ski parks should have a good future in China," he said.

Mr Xu counts himself among the converted, after three recent pilgrimages to Shijinglong. "What else can you do here in winter? People are bored of karaoke and bowling is out of fashion. But skiing offers such a good experience, with fresh air and beautiful mountains."

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