CHENGDU, CHINA (AFP) – Weaving down a steep slope, snowboarder Zhang Xu skid gracefully to a halt in a shower of white powder – one of a new generation of Chinese people learning winter sports in brand new indoor facilities.
“I fell in love with the sport,” said 25-year-old Zhang, who started coming to the Sunac Snow Centre in Chengdu in July, the same month it opened.
“Skiing used to be a relatively small sport (in China) but now it’s more popular, and the credit for that is down to the Winter Olympics,” he said.
The 2022 Beijing Winter Games have inspired a boom in construction of snow resorts; their numbers have rocketted nearly fourfold, fuelled by demand from China’s swelling middle class.
A decade ago there were only just over 200 ski resorts in China – at the end of last year, that figure had jumped to 770, according to real estate group JLL.
Nearly 21 million people visited one last year, as the ability to spend more on leisure activities grows – average national disposable income has increased four times over the last two decades.
China has grand plans for this burgeoning interest – it has previously said it wants to put 10 per cent of the world’s most populous nation on skis ahead of the 2022 Games.
That’s a figure so large it would double the current global tally of skiers.
In provinces such as southwestern Sichuan, known for its hot and humid summers, there are plenty of mountains but little snow, so the best way for locals to learn to ski is inside.
“We are the first indoor ski resort in southwest China,” said manager of the centre Liu Jia, which has three ski slopes, one for every level.
The vast hangar-like space boasts ski lifts and escalators, as well as neon-lit igloos and an artificial grove of pink-blossomed trees for selfie taking.
At 80,800 square metres, the size of about a dozen football pitches, Liu said the snow park is the largest of its kind in the world – though one in Shanghai, slated to open in the next 18 months, could eclipse that.
Those taking beginner classes clunked cautiously down the slope, some pausing for selfies halfway down. Others protected themselves against falls by wearing stuffed panda toys around their middle – a tribute to Sichuan’s best-known animal species. “The snow park is close to my home, only an hour away, and newly opened so I wanted to come and try it,” said 31-year-old Yang Jin, as her young children played nearby in the snow.
“I’d like my children to learn to ski,” she added.
The upcoming Olympics might spur interest even further – Beijing hopes its athletes will win more than five gold medals and compete in all 109 events, state news agency Xinhua reported last year.
China has won 13 Olympic winter golds – mostly in skating sports – compared to the United States’ 105.
Indoor slopes alone might not be enough to match the ambitions of those who have already caught the bug though.
“I have plans to go skiing in Xinjiang, Shandong or Jilin,” said the snowboarder Zhang, naming areas in China further north with colder climates.
“As I get better, the length of the slope here might not meet my needs,” he said.