Despite the deep winter chills and winds, the laughter and high spirits of children sliding down the snow slopes at the National Stadium in north Beijing have brought vitality to the venue, which is hosting the annual Bird’s Nest Happy Ice and Snow Carnival.

There has been growing public interest in winter sports since July 2015, when Beijing and co-host Zhangjiakou (in Hebei province) were awarded the Winter Olympics of 2022.

The carnival offers 11 types of winter sports both in and outside the stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, which was built for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. The landmark venue will be refurbished to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Games.

‘White opium’

Citing the addictive fun of skiing, some young Chinese fans have dubbed the sport “white opium” because their bodies itch for action every year when the snow season approaches.

The crowded scenes at major ski resorts around Beijing signifies China’s surging appetite for the sport, which was introduced in the early 2000s.

When the Jundushan Ski Resort in the northern suburb of Changping opened trial operations on Nov 25, general manager Qiao Wei was impressed by the long lines of skiers waiting to take cable lifts to the top of the trails.

Skiing past a snow replica of the Temple of Heaven in Changchun, Jilin province. Photo: Reuters

Skiing past a snow replica of the Temple of Heaven in Changchun, Jilin province. Photo: Reuters

Boasting a maximum capacity of 6,000 skiers on 150,000sq m of rugged terrain, Jundushan has upgraded its cable lifts and purchased more high-end skiing and snowboarding equipment.

“The increasing number of advanced skiers among the health-conscious middle class has prompted us to provide better facilities and services. It is proof of the sport’s rising profile,” Qiao said.

According to the Beijing municipal winter sports administration, the city’s 22 outdoor and indoor ski resorts registered 1.69 million visits during the 2015-16 snow season, the highest number nationwide.

As highlighted in Beijing’s Winter Olympics bid plan, China is rolling out a national campaign to encourage 300 million people to participate in winter sports by 2022.

Riding a special ice-chair on frozen Houhai lake in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

Riding a special ice-chair on frozen Houhai lake in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

The call has inspired greater investment in the winter recreation sector, which has seen 108 new ski resorts built since Beijing and Zhangjiakou were awarded the Winter Games last year.

China has more than 200 skating rinks and 500 ski resorts spread across 25 provinces, and about 30 million people participate in winter sports and related activities, according to the General Administration of Sport of China, the country’s top sports body.

Mass revolution

In November, the administration and seven ministry-level departments – including the Ministry of Finance and the National Development and Reform Commission – issued long-term national plans for the development of winter sports and construction of infrastructure.

The country aims to build 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts by 2022, laying the foundations for the winter sports industry to generate one trillion yuan (RM650bil) in gross revenue, including spending at venues, equipment production and training fees, by 2025.

Jiayu Liu is a renowned snowboarder in China. Photo: AFP

Jiayu Liu is a renowned snowboarder in China. Photo: AFP

Developers of winter sports venues will be offered reasonable and flexible policies on tax incentives and land acquisition, according to Wang Weidong, director of the administration’s economics department. He said the administration will work with the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Land and Resources to finalise the measures.

“The acceleration of the construction of winter sports facilities is not just about hosting elite competitions, but also to stimulate mass consumption in the sector,” said Gao Zhidan, vice-minister of sport.

Despite the government’s enthusiasm, experts have warned that the industry should be developed cautiously, with integrated planning and an emphasis on service and staff training.

“The investment in the industry is mainly for the 2022 Olympics, but what happens after the Games?” said Yang Hua, a sports sociology expert and the Party chief of Beijing Sport University.

Skaters perform during a mass wedding during Harbin's International Ice Festival, in Heilongjiang province, China. Photo: Reuters

Skaters perform during a mass wedding during Harbin’s International Ice Festival, in Heilongjiang province, China. Photo: Reuters

“To avoid a waste of resources and operational difficulties after the Olympics, local governments and property developers should take local tourism, accommodations and environmental protection into consideration in the bigger picture,” he said.

Yang’s suggestion has been adopted by Yanqing county in northwest Beijing, the proposed venue of the Olympic alpine skiing, bobsled and skeleton competitions.

After signing a partnership agreement with Wanke Property Development Co earlier this year, Shijinglong Ski Resort in Yanqing, which was built in 1999, has been renovated and now boasts barrier-free facilities and an internet-based management system offering online booking, payment and customer reviews.

The service upgrades, such as requiring skiers to wear helmets – and providing 3,000 free helmets – have earned positive feedback since the resort reopened in early December. – China Daily/Asia News Network