French leisure group Club Med formally opens its first resort in China on Tuesday in the icy northeast, cashing in on a newfound love for winter sports among an increasingly wealthy middle class.
Club Med is hoping to attract clients from across China, and even Southeast Asia, to its new village in Yabuli, which features 18 ski slopes - and winter temperatures often below minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit).
"Most of the industry is in decline. China is really the only place where the industry is growing," Justin Downes, a Canadian from the ski resort of Whistler who advises investors on the winter sports sector in China, told AFP.
Club Med will also offer plenty of indoor winter pursuits such as karaoke and mah-jong for those not willing to brave the frigid Siberian winds.
Chinese clients "are not keen on skiing eight hours a day. They want to have other things to do," Downes said.
The Canadian consultant said he was working on a project with Lim Chee Wah, an heir to Malaysia's Genting group, to develop what will be the largest ski resort in Asia, three hours outside Beijing in the northern province of Hebei.
The project, called "Secret Garden" and due to open in 2012, is expected to be able to accommodate 18,000 tourists a day, and would include a theme park and golf course for the summer months.
"There are about five million ski tourists in the country, which is tiny by global standards," acknowledged Downes, who estimates the number could jump to 20 million by 2020 as new ski resorts are built and others are expanded.
Skiing only caught on for ordinary Chinese in the mid-1990s in the country's north and northeast, but has since blossomed into a pastime that can be practised nationwide.
So far, more than 200 ski resorts, most of them quite small, have opened everywhere from western China's Xinjiang region and the Tibetan plateau to the southwestern province of Yunnan and Inner Mongolia in the north.
On the outskirts of Beijing, about 10 ski areas are in operation, most of them using artificial snow to lure weekend daytrippers, as the region's winters have seen less and less precipitation.
"I spend between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan each year on skiing," Luo Xiaoheng, a 34-year-old businessman who took up the sport 10 years ago, told AFP while checking out a new pair of skis at a sporting goods store in the capital.
"The conditions are not that great in China, but the level of the skiers on the slopes is improving rapidly," said Luo, who said he once travelled to Chamonix in the French Alps to pursue his hobby.
Club Med said last week its sales in China had increased by over 40 percent in 2010. The country is expected to become the group's second-largest market by 2015, with the opening of five villages.