As China literally leaps into snow sports, shoddy ski parks cause safety concerns

Updated 2018-01-24 15:56:02

Safety and rescue services at Chinese ski resorts lag behind

○ Escalating number of injuries and deaths at Chinese ski resorts highlights dangers of burgeoning sports sector

○ Ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, China is embracing skiing as its new favorite winter activity

○ Greedy developers are constructing new ski resorts without proper safety planning

Hu Yang, a university freshman from Beijing, was standing at the starting line of an advanced skiing piste in Wanlong Ski Resort in Chongli, North China's Hebei Province. Although he had skied the run four or five times before, the moment he set off this time, he felt something was different.

His snowboard was shaking, a sign of reckless speeding. Before he could slow himself, he fell and started tumbling down the slope, his head, neck and back hitting the ground. After another skier called the ambulance, Hu was sent to the hospital and diagnosed with eight broken bones and severe spinal damage.

Hu is not the only Chinese skier who had a bad luck the moment he hit the slopes last winter. Two days after his accident, a female postgraduate student from Peking University was killed at Wanlong Ski Resort after hitting a tree.

And another two days later, at Thaiwoo Ski Resort, which is 35 kilometers from Wanlong, a 10-year-old boy fell off an intermediate slope and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. A 9-year-old girl also died after her hair and arm were ripped off by a magic carpet (a moving belt which pulls the passengers uphill) at a ski resort in Shandong Province.

There are no official statistics on the number of people in China who are injured or even killed when skiing every winter. Academic research on the topic is outdated, but the most recent study by Zhu Donghua, a sports professor from Shenyang University of Technology, of 70 ski resorts in China showed that fatalities rose from just five in 2008 to 26 in 2011.

But there is little doubt that the number of skiing-related casualties and injuries are on the rise in China as the country embraces the sport in preparation for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Boosted by the growing demand for winter sports among China's expanding middle class along with support from the central government, China is literally leaping into skiing.

This has prompted hundreds of real estate developers and ski resort operators to also take the plunge. In 1996, there were only nine ski resorts and less than 1,000 skiers in China. According to the China Ski Industry White Book, by 2016 the number of ski resorts rose to 646, which was 78 more than the year before. Chinese ski resorts handled 15.1 million skiers in 2016, a 20.8 percent year-on-year increase.

Keeping up with demand

Wei Gaihua, vice manager of a ski resort-planning company under the Beijing Carving Ski Group, said that when it was founded in 2013, the company provided consulting services for about 200 ski resorts each year. Now that number has doubled. "The business volume is rising so fast we can barely take it," he told China Newsweek.

Wei's clients range from smaller snow parks less than 20,000 square-meters in size to large-scale ski resorts up to 500,000 square-meters. Wei also said that the number of large-scale ski resorts and their construction speed are both growing faster than ever. Fulong ski resort in Chongli, which opened in 2016, for example, only took three years to be completed despite being 750,000 square-meters in size.

With the Winter Olympics set to be held in 2022, there is no sign that China's skiing explosion will end any time soon. The latest addition to China's growing number of ski resorts is Tianhu Ski Resort in Guilin, Southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which opened this month. In Tibet, authorities are planning the highest ski resort in China in terms of altitude, according to reports.

"There are of course positive aspects in this skiing boom. But when everyone wants to have a slice of the industry's cake, they become irrational," Guo Jing, founder of Saibei Ski Resort, Chongli's first ski resort, told China Newsweek.

Many Chinese real estate developers, for example, skipped the planning and research phase and went directly to construction, only realizing later that their resort just wasn't suitable for snow due to climate reasons.

Some cities even went as far as cutting through hills to create ski slopes, damaging the local environment. In February of 2017, after a slope at a ski resort in Xingtai, Hebei Province, collapsed and injured five people, investigations showed that the slope was actually constructed of scaffolding, covered only with a thin layer of snow.

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