The Next Boom

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The Next Boom 0204

Searching for an exotic ski vacation? You could start with Yabuli, Gulmarg or Krasnaya Polyana. Haven't heard of them? That might change sooner than you think. While ski area construction in North America and Western Europe has slowed to a crawl, the next Whistler or Vail could very well be taking shape now in the booming hinterlands of China, India or Russia, where economies are expanding at warp speed. And considering that roughly 40 percent of the world's population lives in those three countries, capturing even a tiny percentage of that market could swing skiing's center of gravity away from the venerable slopes of Europe.

Skiing and winter resorts, it seems, are byproducts of a growing wealthy class in a number of emerging economies. As people earn more money and have more leisure time, they head to the mountains. The ski industry is also a great way to attract foreign visitors—and their wallets. Take Gulmarg, India, the best resort in the Himalayas: The service is friendly, the powder light and the prices cheap. (Your only concern is possible kidnapping by Kashmir separatist guerrillas.) Gulmarg just unveiled a new gondola that whisks skiers to the highest lift-served resort on the planet—at a breathless 13,500 feet. India's growing upper class, fueled by a boom in high-tech jobs, is increasingly chasing the good life, which for many includes skiing at Gulmarg.

In China, plans are under way to develop a half-dozen new ski areas and to expand existing ones in the northern provinces of Heliongjiang and Jilin. Yabuli already has 10 lifts—including a gondola—serving an 1,800-foot vertical. Government and private investors have hired the SE Group, an American ski-area consulting firm, to evaluate sites for a new four-season luxury resort.

For now, though, China is skiing's wild frontier. The country's ski fields are sprinkled with a few austere inns, drab business hotels and minimalist mountain lodges. Natural snow tends to be stingy, requiring snowmaking, and frigid temperatures often turn ski runs into boilerplate. Then there's the local cuisine, which makes some Westerners queasy. "They have delicacies like dried snow frogs that turn red and look like chili peppers, says Bruce Erickson of the SE Group. "And when they want to impress you, they serve deer penis.

Much of the time, however, you get some coaching in local etiquette. For example, one lift-boarding sign, which bears an English translation next to the Chinese, offers this warning: "Strictly forbid excessive drinking person to take a seat!

Looking to capitalize on the increased popularity of adventure travel, China Professional Tours of Norcross, Ga., rolled out a 10-day trip this season to the country's two largest ski areas, while China Eastern Airlines recently launched a weekly nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Harbin (population: 700,000), close to Yabuli and Jilin resorts.

Currently, there's scant local business from the mostly poor, mostly rural communities that surround Chinese ski areas. The government is looking to its new resorts to gain status as an international destination and also to entice more Chinese onto the slopes, both to develop athletes and to create a favorable climate for hosting international competitions, something the government dearly hopes to do.

"Now that China is hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, it wants to go after a Winter Olympics as well, says Nick Qin, president of China Professional Tours. Most middle-class and wealthy Chinese ski in South Korea, where they can choose from a dozen relatively upscale resorts. "I think the Chinese ski areas will catch up to those places very fast, Qin says. And you can't complain about the price of skiing: $4 lift tickets are inexpensive even by Chinese standards.South Korea is poised for another boom in resort-building, now that it's recovering from a prolonged recession. The country already has a reputation as a growing Asian ski hub, thanks to the Koreans' affiniity for mountains and their apparent desire to match the ski-crazed Japanese. The South Korean slopes aren't intimidating—more like the rolling hills of Vermont's Green Mountains—but they're suitable for the beginner-intermediate crowds from Seoul that swoop in every weekend. The megaresorts of Dragon Valley and Muju were built in the 1980s, but now there's competition from newcomers Phoenix Park and Hyundai Sungwoo. These resorts have two gondolas and a dozen modern chairlifts—including six-seaters—between them. Sungwoo was built in just 14 months. It met with instant success: More than 400,000 skiers showed up during its inaugural season.

Hyundai—yes, the conglomerate that makes automobiles—is even developing a state-of-the-art, four-season resort in North Korea, at Mt. Kumgang. The project has led to the first overland border crossing for civilians in a half-century.

While Asia makes its mark in the ski world, Russia may be the awakening giant. The country is eager to attract business by building modern winter resorts. It is, in fact, quite likely that the largest "ski circus of connected ski areas in the world will be built in the former Soviet Union.

An area in the southwest Caucasus around the village of Krasnaya Polyana, which is an hour's drive from the upscale Black Sea resort city of Soschi, has been anointed by President Vladimir Putin as the future "Russian Davos. Putin has put national pride at stake; he believes the Caucasus region can be developed into a ski hub to rival the Alps. An avid skier who fancies backcountry heli-trips, the Russian president enlisted some of the country's wealthiest businessmen to invest in what is expected to be a billion-dollar complex. The government hired Ecosign, a ski-area design company based in Whistler, B.C., to draw up plans.

"We're talking about a valley that covers 420 square kilometers (about 300 square miles), says Ecosign president Paul Mathews. "There's enough land to build seven ski areas and attract more than 90,000 skiers a day, which would rival Les Trois Vallees in France. The Caucasus range, nearly the size of the Alps, has much higher mountains, with peaks reaching 17,000 feet. "These are spectacular places, he says. "They have great fall-line slopes, and they tend to get more snow than the Alps.

By Western standards, primitive conditions still exist in the Russian countryside. Pigs run free, and raw sewage flows into a river in Krasnaya Polyana. Bannoe, a ski area that is opening this winter in the southern Ural Mountains, is near the grimy industrial metropolis of Magnitogorsk, where the sky is filled with smoke from the belching stacks of iron and steel foundries. But the ski area, outfitted with an eight-seat gondola, is in pristine forest above a scenic mountain lake.

Ecosign is immersed in six Russian resort projects, including two that will open at Krasnaya Polyana over the next couple of years. Rosa Khutor and Psekhako Ridge will each have 13 lifts, including an eight-passenger gondola apiece and an assortment of detachable chairs.

Ecosign's Mathews calls the Russians, who are "winter people with growing discretionary incomes, perhaps the world's best new skiing prospects. "The government figures that the country loses $2 billion a year from Russians who ski elsewhere, he says, "and they'd like to keep half of that at home.