Going downhill, but raising living standards

Updated:2017-02-20 09:21:57

Going downhill, but raising living standards

Children learn to ski at the Meihuashan International Ski Resort in Liupanshui, Guizhou province.[Photo/Xinhua]

  Once regarded as a winter sports wilderness, Liupanshui, a city in Guizhou province, has overturned expectations and is building an industry based around high-altitude ski resorts to promote winter tourism and lift people out of poverty.

  Promoted as part of Beijing's preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, skiing has enjoyed a surge in popularity in North China, a fact highlighted by the bustling scenes at suburban resorts during the recent Spring Festival holiday.

  However, few people would have expected a similar scenario in the country's much warmer, but underdeveloped, southwestern regions, until a recent skiing event shed light on the fledgling businesses of three new resorts built on the rugged terrain that surrounds Liupanshui.

  The five-day National Youth Alpine Skiing Invitational Tournament, held from Jan 15 to 19 at the Yushe Snow Mountain Resort and the Meihuashan International Ski Resort on the outskirts of the city, attracted more than 5,000 visitors, half of them from nearby provinces. Many of the visitors were experiencing the chills and thrills for the first time.

  Meanwhile, another resort, Wumeng Yunhai in Pan county, 140 kilometers south of the city, has just entered its second year of commercial operations and can host 2,000 visitors a day.

  The three resorts, which operate nine skiing trails combined at an average altitude of 2,200 meters, can accommodate 20,000 visitors simultaneously.

  "I'd heard about skiing and watched it on TV, and knew how popular it is, especially among people in Northeast China, but I never had a chance to try it until today," said Wei Lijun, a local resident who was offered a free pass to the Meihuashan Resort on the opening day of the tournament.

  "It's so much fun, even though I have fallen down many times. It's a totally new experience for a lot of us here," said Wei, who was accompanied by her husband and son.

  Situated halfway up the Plum Blossom Mountain, just 10 km northwest of the city, the resort features verdant views along its artificial snow trails, while the temperature at altitude remains cold enough to maintain enough groomed ski runs for the resort to operate for two months during winter.

  Racing in the relatively warm environment was a surprisingly pleasant experience for the athletes who participated in the tournament, most of whom train in China's northeastern provinces, where snow is abundant.

  "I had no idea that a ski resort could be built in the southern part of the country. It feels so different from the teeth-chattering training sessions at snow-capped resorts in the north; the trees are still green here and we don't need to dress like polar bears during our warm-ups," said Zhang Yuying, after winning the women's slalom at Meihuashan.

  Wang Rongtao from Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, a winter sports power province, said the ski runs are as smooth as those in more established resorts in the north: "They are shorter here, but the quality of the snow is perfect for racing. Plus the snow here doesn't freeze into ice in the morning like it does in Harbin."

  Positive feedback from elite athletes has repaid the efforts made by local governments, businesspeople and village cadres to transform the former industrial hub into an emerging winter sports and leisure destination that will help raise local living standards.

Going downhill, but raising living standards

Mu Chengze participates in the men's slalom at the National Youth Alpine Skiing Invitational Tournament in Liupanshui. [Photo/Xinhua]

  Hard times

  Liupanshui was established in the 1970s, after the government called for greater urbanization of the rural southwestern region, which is home to a number of ethnic groups. The city gradually developed a resource-dependent economy based on mining and the extraction of raw materials, but the area has struggled in the past decade as a result of economic restructuring geared toward eco-friendly and high-tech industries.

  Hampered by the slowdown and the poor transportation infrastructure in the mountains, nearly 390,000 rural residents of the city's total population of 3.28 million live below the poverty line.

  In 2015, the poverty line for rural residents was 2,800 yuan ($408) per person, according to the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, which adjusts the standard every year.

  Boasting a mild climate, scenic landscape and abundant forests, which cover almost half of its territory, Liupanshui is ambitiously promoting its tourism resources, anticipating an economic turnaround, while the national strategy to boost the winter sports sector for the 2022 Olympic Games has given the city's efforts a timely push.

  "The whole country has been mobilized (for the development of the winter sports industry). Given the excellent natural conditions we have, we don't want to be left behind," said Zhou Rong, Liupanshui's mayor, at the opening ceremony of the tournament at Meihuashan.

  In November, the General Administration of Sports, the nation's leading sports body, published a national plan to built 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts by 2022, up from the current 200 and 500 respectively. That will lay the foundations to involve 300 million people in winter sports and related activities, as envisioned by President Xi Jinping in July 2015, when Beijing and co-host Zhangjiakou were awarded the rights to host the 2022 Winter Games.

  Living standards rise

  A number of underprivileged families around the city's new resorts have already benefited from the winter sports boom.

Going downhill, but raising living standards

Children learn to ski at the Meihuashan International Ski Resort in Liupanshui, Guizhou province. [Photo/Xinhua]

  All 206 households in Gaolu village, which is located on the part of the mountain that is home to the Meihuashan resort, have become shareholders in the company that operates the resort by granting it right to use their land. Their contribution accounted for 20 million yuan of the 350 million yuan that has so far been invested in the resort and related facilities.

  Between this year and 2021, the villagers expect to receive a combined annual dividend of 400,000 yuan from the resort's revenue, and 20 percent of the amount will be directly allocated to support the 75 households now living below the poverty line, according to Zhang Liangkai, the village chief.

  "Even though the resort isn't yet running at full capacity, our people have already made a better living by participating in its construction and related facilities," he said.

  About 20 impoverished villagers from Gaolu are employed by the resort's security, catering and equipment-maintenance teams, while a major construction project provided jobs for 120 villagers in 2015.

  By the end of last year, the annual per capita income in the village had risen to nearly 8,000 yuan, from 4,860 yuan in 2014.

  "In the past, we ate potatoes three meals a day because no other commercial crops could be cultivated on the rugged landscape. Now, we can afford to buy cars, and many people from outside the mountain have visited our village, which has made a huge difference," said Chen Jun, a 36-year-old Gaolu native who works in the resort's six-man patrol team.

  However, the lack of professional winter sports skills and operational expertise has emerged as an issue for locals who want to run the business sustainably on their own, according to insiders.

  "The market potential for winter sports and recreation is something to be reckoned with in this part of the region. Staff training, especially for locals, should be improved because the demand for high-end talent in advanced ski instruction, slope grooming and event operation, rather than just waiters and cleaning ladies, may grow very quickly," said Zhu Chengyi, vice-chairman of the Chinese Ski Association.

  According to Liu Guanwen, deputy general manager of the Meihuashan resort, most of the 300 technical and operational staff come from Northeast China, while all 150 ski instructors at the Yushe Snow Mountain Resort, Meihuashan's co-host for the alpine skiing event, were hired from Heilongjiang province, which is also in the northeast.

  "We are planning a training program in collaboration with mature resorts and local occupational schools to consistently nurse talent for the resorts in Liupanshui," Liu said.