Davos has attracted Bill Clinton, Angelina Jolie and Bill Gates. Now the Swiss Alpine village is deploying a 27-year-old Chinese ski instructor to appeal to the world’s most populous nation.
Song Shuyao, who started skiing when she was 12, is one of eight Mandarin-speaking ski teachers paid by the local tourism board to spend the winter in the Swiss Alps this year, as Davos tries to break into China’s skiing market.
“I believe whoever touches the snow once will love skiing,” she said in a phone interview during a break from a full day of lessons in Davos. “Whoever starts to love skiing will demand more from facilities and the environment. Therefore they want to try skiing in the Alps.”
While China’s swelling middle class is a target for holiday destinations around the world, the country has been slow to embrace skiing. As the sport becomes more popular in China, Swiss ski resorts are pinning their hopes on Chinese guests, who spend twice as much as German visitors.
Attracting Chinese tourists is crucial for Swiss mountain resorts, including Davos, home to the World Economic Forum, which begins next week. Overnight stays in Swiss hotels during the ski season dropped 13 percent over the last five years, according to Swiss statistics office data.
There are about 5 million to 10 million active skiers in China, and that number could double by 2015, according the Swiss tourism board. Some 35 percent of Chinese skiers are planning a vacation abroad within the next two years, it said.
Skiing’s appeal is part of a wider trend in Chinese tourism away from large groups and toward individual travelers, who tend to be younger, better educated and wealthier, according to Eric Thun, University Lecturer in Chinese Business Studies at Oxford University’s Said Business School.
“What they look for is something unique that they can impress their friends and neighbors with, that not everybody has done,” he said. “A bunch of new ski resorts have popped up in China, some within driving distance of Beijing. But they wouldn’t be considered anything compared to the Alps.”
For Li Ce, a 25-year-old accountant from Beijing who learned to ski in 2010, Switzerland is the top choice among foreign sporting destinations he’d like to visit.
“The ski resorts are wonderful and the temperature is not too low,” Li said in a phone interview during a break on the slopes at the Genting Secret Garden resort in Zhangjiakou, about three hours from Beijing, where it was minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) in early January.
Shares in luxury ski-wear maker Moncler SpA have climbed more than 40 percent since its initial public offering in Milan last month as investors bet on Asian and other demand for $1,220 quilted polyester jackets. Moncler is seeking to capture a larger slice of the $101 billion designer clothing market. Chinese shoppers account for about a quarter of global luxury sales, Bain & Co. estimates.
In 2012, more than three-quarters of guests staying overnight in Swiss hotels were European and just 2.4 percent were from mainland China, according to the country’s statistics office. About 60 percent of the overnight hotel stays by Chinese visitors took place during the summer months, according to data provided by the Swiss tourism board.
High prices, due partly to a rise in the franc against the dollar and the euro, coupled with the global economic crisis, have deterred visitors from coming to Switzerland in recent years.
A double room in the five-star Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvedere in central Davos in February costs about 300 francs ($330) per night, while a seven-day ski pass for the region runs at 365 francs during the main season. Prices in the sector were 56 percent higher than the European Union average in 2012, according to the Swiss statistics office.
Across Switzerland, overnight hotel stays by Chinese guests increased 28 percent last winter, from a year earlier. In Davos they tripled.
Adding to their appeal, the Chinese are among the top spenders among vacationers in Switzerland, according to Swiss tourism data, at an average of 350 francs a day — more than twice what Germans usually spend. Expensive watches, such as those made by Cie. Financiere Richemont SA, are popular among the Chinese.
“The Chinese are aspiring to and adopting Western habits as they grow richer,” said Luca Solca, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas in London. “They’re embracing a lifestyle that in their minds is the ‘happy life’ of well to-do-Westerners and skiing in Switzerland can certainly be seen as part of this.”
To whet their appetite, there are stores selling timepieces at tourist attractions, including atop the Jungfraujoch, which at 3,475 meters (11,401 feet) overlooks the longest glacier in the Alps.
Tour operator Beijing Caissa International Travel Services introduced a 10-day ski and spa package for Switzerland, said Vice President Wei Ling.
“Skiing trips are among our most popular products right now as more and more Chinese are interested in this sport,” Wei said.
In Davos, Song says she knows why: “My Chinese customers often happily tell me, ‘finally I can relax for some days while enjoying skiing in the Alps, without being disturbed by the phone.’”
With assistance from Zijing Wu in Hong Kong, Nicholas Wadhams and Feifei Shen in Beijing and Andrew Roberts in Paris. Editors: Zoe Schneeweiss, Anne Swardson. To contact the reporters on this story: Catherine Bosley in Zurich at firstname.lastname@example.org; Weixin Zha in Frankfurt at email@example.com. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Craig Stirling at firstname.lastname@example.org