China’s Ski Hype: Trendy on Social Media, Drab at Outskirts Resorts

As the Beijing Winter Olympics close, this year’s ski season in China also comes to an end. For the past two weeks or so, domestic social media has been teeming with hashtags about the Olympics, but the hype about winter sports began to build up much earlier, perhaps as early as seven years ago, when Beijing won the Olympic bid.

In particular, skiing has risen both as a booming industry and a social media phenomenon among Chinese middle-class urbanites. According to the 2020 China Ski Industry White Book, during the 2020/2021 snow season, the number of skier visits in China reached 20.76 million, nearly doubling the number in 2015. The number of ski resorts also rose from 460 in 2015 to 715 in 2021, and is expected to reach 800 by the end of 2022.

While social media influencers almost always present the most glamorous sides of their skiing experience – the $4000 luxury skiing outfit, the spectacular Alps-like natural scenery from renowned ski resorts in China’s far north, and all the painstakingly designed poses and sophisticated make-up for photo shoots – a significant proportion of China’s skiers had their hands-on experience in small and semi-professional resorts often located in the outskirts of China’s third- and fourth-tier cities. Both realities – that which is represented on social media and the one experienced by more small-town folk who can’t afford a costly winter trip to the country’s far north – contribute to the rencent ski industry boom across China.

“Snow Beauties”

Xiaohongshu, or “Little Red Book” in Chinese, is simultaneously a content-sharing platform and an e-commerce site. With slogans such as “find the life you want” and “mark your life here,” Xiaohongshu has been described as “China’s answer to Instagram,” and has become a leading “source of lifestyle inspiration” for Chinese young people.

This year, there is no place better for the hype about skiing to brew among China’s vast urban middle-class consumers than Xiaohongshu. According to data released by the platform, this winter, searches for skiing-related content rose by 150% compared to the same period last year, and the number of posts under topics about skiing saw an astonishing 400% increase.

On a social media platform like Xiaohongshu, skiing – an expensive sport often regarded as elitist in the West – is more about style and fashion than a sport.

Skiing is expensive, and hence can represent a convenient status symbol. A full set of entry-level ski equipment purchased from French sports gear brand Decathlon would cost as much as 3,000 yuan ($475), or about half the average monthly income in China’s richest city Shanghai.

But sure enough, Decathlon is too tasteless for Xiaohongshu users. This winter, the most popular skiing outfit brand trending on Xiaohongshu is Burton, an American snowboard manufacturing company from which a pair of ski socks costs about 300 yuan and a popular neon pink jacket is 6,298 yuan. For a full set of equipment including boots, clothing, a snowboard, etc., one must prepare to pay at least 20,000 yuan.

When it comes to beauty and fashion, nobody knows more than Xiaohongshu-ers. There are over 90,000 posts on “how to dress for skiing” on Xiaohongshu. Much like fashion influencers on Instagram, Xiaohongshu bloggers inspire ski outfit choices by sharing stylish portraits on the platform. Some also write reviews on the pros and cons of certain products, make videos on the entire dressing up process, and tutorials on how to pose for photo shoots in a ski outfit. Such content is now ubiquitous on the platform (“Hold the snowboard diagonally”; “Lying on side with one leg up”; “Cross-legged and hands touching the lips”).

According to Chinese online shopping platform Tmall, during the 2020/2021 ski season, the sales volume of anti-shake cameras not only followed the same trend as ski equipment, but actually outsold them. Anti-shake cameras were also the number one popular item on the platform’s ski gear recommendation checklist.

The photogenic fashion bloggers on Xiaohongshu and those inspired by them have been nicknamed in a slightly sarcastic sense by Chinese netizens as “snow beauties” (xue yuan), to distinguish them from the “real ski lovers.” In the winter of 2021, likely inspired by the BoogelWoogel Ski Festival in Russia where people ski in swimsuits, Xiaohongshu influencers swarmed to ski resorts in Northen China, where the temperature could drop as low as -30º degrees celcius in winter, and took pictures wearing bikinis.

Xiaohongshu bloggers. (Image: Xiaohongshu)

Trending outfits and model poses only represent half the battle – for a masterpiece that stands out on social media, you have to find the right background view too, and nobody knows more than Xiaohongshu bloggers about the best ski resorts in China, who created over 180,000 notes recommending ski resorts across the country, and those venues lucky enough to be selected are, without exception, large ski resorts located in northern and northwestern China, equipped with long and steep ski slopes, gondola lifts and a spectacular snowy mountain scenery.

Travel and accommodation expenses add another layer of luxury to skiing, which is especially true for those living in southern China, who tend to travel to the far north to spend a winter in renowned ski resorts, where the price for a hotel room could double during ski seasons.

Xiao Chang lives in Shenzhen in Southern China. Every year, she flies six hours to Urumqi in Xinjiang, then flies one more hour to Altai, from where she has to take a bus for another two hours to finally arrive at her destination: Koktokay Ski Resorts, hailed as one of China’s best ski resorts and, unsurprisingly, one of the trendiest on Xiaohongshu. An influencer on Xiaohongshu described it as “the most Alps-like ski resort in the country.” The ticket to the resort itself is 200 yuan while the transportation costs her 20 times more. But Xiao Chang likes the feeling of freedom sliding downhill in Koktokay.

“Hands-On” Recreational Ski Resorts

The industry boom is real, but skiing is not necessarily the same as it is represented on social media where ski resorts are always “Alps-like” in white-capped mountains with visitors in full sets of professional ski gear (sometimes in bikinis too). For many in China, such a skiing experience remains unaffordable – either the cost of money or time.

On the one hand, Chinese ski slopes are full of beginners. With roughly half the country having less than 15 days of snowy weather every year, China has never been a country for winter sports lovers. The proportion of the Chinese population involved in skiing is only 1%, compared with 8% in the US, 9% in Japan and 22% in Norway, according to a report by Laurent Vanat. The Beijing Winter Olympics have somewhat changed that, but only scarcely. Two weeks ahead of the Olympics, China’s Administration of Sports released a report declaring the completion of President Xi Jinping’s Olympic promise to “get 300 million people engaged in winter sports.” Among the surveyed, however, only 11.02% engage in winter sports more than three times a year, and 36.92% said they participated in winter sports only once every three years. An industry report by MOB Institute also suggests that 77.4% of China’s ski resort visitors are first-timers, making China the world’s largest ski market for beginners.

Moreover, among the over 700 ski resorts in China now, about 75% are the so-called “Hands-on Ski Recreational Resorts” that are relatively small in size and target amateur tourists who want a hands-on experience of skiing. Unlike Koktokay in the far northwest or the Changbaishan Ski Resort – another Xiaohongshu favorite situated near the Chinese border with North Korea – these “Hands-on ski resorts” are mostly located in the outskirts of a city within a two-hour car ride, serving more local visitors than tourists from elsewhere in the country.

Wu Bin, former Chief Strategy Officer for Vanke Group’s Ice and Snow Business Department, said that such recreational ski resorts usually have simple facilities and only the easiest ski slopes. “Most of those who visit this type of resorts are one-time customers, with an average stay of two hours. Skiers do not even wear ski clothing there. If your first skiing experience is at this kind of resort, chances are you might be disappointed and leave with a bad impression of the sport.”

At a “hands-on ski resort” in Rizhao, a fourth-tier city on China’s eastern coast, I saw exactly the same scene that Wu describes: small in size, only two slopes were in use, each around 200 meters long. There was exactly one “magic carpet” for lifting beginners up hills, cramped with people. No one was wearing the glitzy ski clothing Xiaohongshu bloggers recommend. The aprè-ski here was a bowl of instant noodles two yuan more expensive than outside the resort. Among the two hundred or so skiers that I saw on the slope, less than five had helmets on. Occasionally, there were novice skiers sliding down the hill screaming.

“Out of the way!,” a woman in black yelled while swooping down on the “Intermediate Slope.” She had clearly lost control of her skis or simply had not mastered the skill of stopping. She did not wear a helmet, either.

Luckily, the woman crashed into the protection net without colliding with anyone. While she struggled to stand up on her skis, a coach approached, and asked if she needed private training lessons: “This wouldn’t have happened if you had learnt some skills first.” The woman, still trying to get up, did not answer. The coach walked away, but continued idling around areas where most first-time skiers would fall.

Admission to the resort is only 20 yuan, ten times less than those of the ski resorts on Xiaohongshu bloggers’ recommendation list. To ski on the slopes, visitors need to pay more for rental equipment. Most only rent a pair of ski boots and skis or snowboards. Apparently nobody feels it necessary to rent a helmet on a slope full of beginners.

When I asked for protective gears (huju) in the “Ski Equipment Hall”, the clerk was confused. “What do you mean by huju?”

“Things that protect me from getting hurt when falling on the ground?”

“No huju, only this.” The woman pulled out a stuffed turtle from the shelf.

Ah, stuffed turtles, used as cushions for protecting one’s knees and backside on a fall. You can see them at every Chinese ski resort, although probably not on Xiaohongshu influencers’ bodies. When I expressed my worries about health and safety to Mr. Huang, the owner of the resort, he explained that being a recreational ski resort, the slopes were not steep enough for one to fall on their head. “For the knees and buttocks, the turtles were good enough.”

Mr. Huang started the ski resort in 2014, when there were only four ski resorts in the whole of Shandong province. By 2019, the number had risen to 67 – an average of four in each city, which means that even people from the smallest administrative level in China (towns, or “xiang zhen”), now have easy access to a recreational ski resort with affordable prices. This is happening across the country, from north to south, east to west. They yield a stark contrast from the pictures represented on social media about Chinese skiing demographics, where it was the young urban middle-class from first- and second-tier cities who occupy the country’s ski slopes.

Without a doubt, the middle-class urbanites are still the largest consuming power, but the rapid growth of recreational resorts in less elite areas also signals the fact that a huge “sinking market,” or market in small cities, has emerged and, in some cases, may be coming to saturate.

Wu Bin, the former Chief Strategy Officer at Vanke Group, commented that the “homogeneous competition within one region” is the biggest challenge for the numerous outskirts ski resorts at the moment.

“The first year was the best. We had the highest revenue at the beginning,” recalled Mr. Huang. The social media hype surrounding skiing in recent years did not translate into more revenue because of the increasing competition in the region, manifested in price wars. “Our admission ticket used to be over 200 yuan, but now it’s less than 50.”

For the past ski season, Mr. Huang’s resort had 100,000 to 150,000 visits, while most were local residents travelling in families. Huang is confident that his resort is among the few in the province that could reach that number, but it’s not good enough at the moment. He is now turning to social media marketing to gain more customers. Instead of Xiaohongshu, Huang chose Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese mainland version, in large part because the latter had actively invited him to start a channel on the platform and helped connect him with existing influencers. On the first day of his Douyin marketing venture, Huang said, tickets were sold out in less than one minute, and they made more than 200,000 yuan via livestreaming that day – about two times the average daily revenue during holidays. “Maybe we should try Xiaohongshu in the future, too,” Huang contemplated.

As I walked out of Mr. Huang’s resort, a family of three, possibly from a nearby village, had just finishd their day of skiing. They passed by me driving a motor tricycle commonly used in local villages for transferring agricultural goods, but now a girl and a middle-aged woman were seated at the back, the girl carefully eating her candied strawberry – I doubt Xiaohongshu users would have much interest in this scene.

On the same day around the same time, an influencer I followed on Xiaohongshu named Betty was skiing in Koktokay in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Under a video post shot in the resort’s breathtaking mountain view, Betty wrote,

“Six o’clock in the evening, the sky was all pink with the sunset as I skied through the mountains of Koktokay. This must be the most romantic moment of my entire winter. I couldn’t help but open my arms as I looked directly into the sunset, the golden light spilling over my body, the wind passing through my ears whispering to me over and over again, “Keep loving the world”.

Local villagers left the ski resort on a motor tricycle. (Source: Pandaily)