Beyond big demands for fast food, minivans, and voting rights, there’s a telltale sign of an expanding middle class: the itch to go skiing. At least, that’s the case across huge swaths of Eurasia, where a growing bourgeoisie, particularly in China (population 1.3 billion) and Russia (pop. 150 million), is driving a boom in the ski business. Not so long ago, Chinese skiers could expect to hitch a ride on “lifts” drawn by tractors or yaks. The experience was so grim that, as recently as the mid-1990s, the country’s number of regular skiers hovered in the low thousands. But the nouveau riche of China are tired of smelling yak butt. In response, the government announced in 2002 its intention to build 300 new ski areas over the next decade. A few dozen beginner areas have sprung up since then, and by government estimates, 750,000 newbies hit the bunny hill annually.
In China, though, plans and reality don’t always mix. Development deals for large destination resorts such as Tiger Mountains and Phoenix Mountain, both in Heilongjiang Province, have been all but squelched. Progress at Jilin Province’s $30 million Beida Lake Ski Field has been glacial (although Jilin recently committed to hosting the 2007 Asian Winter Games). Poor snowfall and a lack of vert don’t help, either. “The Chinese are destroying their own market by building inferior ski areas,” says Jim Haring, president of China Resorts International, a development group that has tried since 1999 to finance a major resort in China. “If one percent of skiers makes a repeat visit to the slopes, it’s a good year.”
But many believe that a demand for bigger, better terrain is inevitable, as was the case in South Korea, where a decade-long skiing vogue is still driving development. “It’s exciting. There are much broader opportunities internationally than in the U.S.,” says International Alpine Design’s Mike Larson, who before starting his own company spent 20 years as director of resort planning for Vail. “Countries reach a point where people have time and money to recreate.”
That’s certainly true in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s ski habit has inspired citizens to hit the slopes, and large industrial firms such as the gas company Gasprom are sinking millions into resort projects. “Along the Ural mountains, there are steel-making cities of a million people, such as Trekgorny” explains Paul Mathews, president of Ecosign, a Canadian company that has designed many of the new Russian slopes. “The locally owned companies are building these ski areas for their employees. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
The crown jewel of Russian skiing is in the Krasnaya Polyana region, where a billion-dollar development could have the capacity to run 50,000 skiers a day. As hype would have it, the megaresort will grow to be an international destination on a par with France’s Trois Vallées-within the next 10 years. Then again, this is Russia, land of bad luck, and Krasnaya needs a sewer system before it can install any hot tubs. Still, if you have to place a bet, figure you’ll most likely make turns in the former Evil Empire-and that your grandchildren may someday hit kickers in the People’s Republic.