Slippery slope

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 August, 2005, 12:00am


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Well known as Beijingers are for flocking in hordes to new leisure activities, the latest commercial response to the city's love affair with skiing could well be one gamble too far.

This weekend, the Qiaobo Ice and Snow World opened its doors: an indoor (yes, indoor) skiing facility 30km northeast of the city centre.

June was marked by baking days when the thermometer touched 37 degrees Celsius, followed by a sweaty July and then a soaking from Typhoon Matsa. Not so inside the all-year winter wonderland of Qiaobo, where powerful cooling technology keeps the air above two slopes of man-made snow at a constant minus 3 degrees.

As well as falling flat on their faces inside a giant refrigerator, members of Beijing's new (and mostly inept) skiing class can also savour the delights of Qiaobo apres ski: an on-site sauna, three restaurants and a bar. 'Our attraction is that we can fill the blank space of summer skiing in Beijing,' said one manager, Wang Shitong.

From the outside, the concave roof of the new centre looks a bit like an Olympic ski jump. It's an odd sight, but no less strange than Beijing's outdoor facilities. When arid winters fail to produce any of the real stuff, these are visible as white strips of artificially made snow set against the dirt-brown mountains to the city's north. In fact, Qiaobo is hoping to cash in on a demand that was created by these winter-only facilities.

After the first ski park within driving distance of the capital opened and struck gold in 1999, imitators appeared. By last winter there were 15. The most popular welcomed up to 3,000 skiers per day over the Lunar New Year holiday.

However, making a profit has not been a straightforward schuss. Amid overcapacity and the high cost of running snow cannons in an unusually warm December, by mid-January five had closed. The others have recently been attracting government attention because of the scarce water they suck up. Last summer, the Beijing Tourism Bureau reportedly said parks that damaged the environment would be shut down - the big dread of many mainland businesses.

Qiaobo's indoor powder will not need replacing as often as snow melting outside, and its runs will not encroach on surrounding woodland. But its huge cost (US$72 million, compared with US$6 million for Nanshan, a nearby outdoor resort) may mean it ends up like so many Chinese theme parks: first clapped out, then boarded up.

Then again, the Qiaobo experience may prove as huge a draw as ice rinks are now in some cities. So visitors who enjoy the mental relaxation of skiing in, say, the Alps, can look forward to a crowded cacophony of screaming children and shrieking yuppies.