Chinese group set to buy Grouse Mountain 

Visits to Whistler by Chinese tourists expected to grow significantly in next decade

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - on the rise A gondola car ascends up Grouse Mountain.

It looks like another iconic B.C. ski hill will be sold to an international buyer.

According to recent reports, China's largest privately-held investment group, China Minsheng Investment Group (CMIG), is expected to pay approximately $200 million for Grouse Mountain.

The deal comes at a time when snow sports are exploding in popularity in China, leading some to ponder what the growth may mean for Whistler Blackcomb.

As recently as the 1990s, there were only a handful of ski areas operating in China. Now there are over 600.

The growth is being driven by the country's growing middle class, which now counts in the hundreds of millions.

After winning its bid to host the 2022 Olympic Games, President Xi Jinping vowed China would be home to over 1,000 ski areas and 300 million winter sports participants by the start of the Games.

Don Murray, VP of Whistler's Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., has played a role in the development of China's burgeoning ski industry.

Since 1999, Ecosign — which now has an office in China — has drawn up 41 master plans for Chinese ski resorts.

Some of them, like Wanda Changbaisan International Resort, are like mini Whistlers, with marquee golf courses, gondolas and pedestrian-friendly villages with plenty of shopping.

Wanda was built from the ground up in two years. "No expense was spared making it," Murray said of the project, which he estimates cost roughly a billion dollars to complete.

Chinese tourism to Whistler, however, remains relatively marginal, according to Shawna Lang, director of market development for Tourism Whistler.

"(It is) still a very, very, very small market for us," she said. "We're still at a stage where we're trying to learn who our customer is, how to attract them and what distribution channels they're using."

But it is a market, she said, that is in the interest of Whistler to cultivate and grow.

"There's a massive amount of people in China looking to travel abroad," said Lang.

"The Chinese market is important for us, particularly for future growth."

Tourism Whistler, she explained, has only really been allowed to advertise in China since 2010, when Canada was granted Preferred Destination Status by the Chinese government.

The organization is pursuing high-end, "mature" travellers from China, rather than bus tours, and Chinese travellers who are visiting family in Canada, Lang said.

According to Destination BC, the province's tourism marketing organization, an estimated 214,000 Chinese visited B.C. in 2015, the majority of whom visited the Lower Mainland. "If they are looking for a way to get away for a few nights, Whistler is a great option for them," said Lang.

According to Professor Gordon Houlden, director of the University of Alberta's China Institute, it is only a matter of time until Whistler starts to see the spoils of China's growing middle class.

More Chinese travel internationally than Americans and Germans combined, he said, and international travel will keep growing, as long as the country's economy — which is growing at four times the rate of the U.S.'s — continues to chug along.

Houlden said he wouldn't be surprised if the number of Chinese travelling to Canada and Whistler increased threefold in the next 10 years.

"There's a lot of folks with disposable income," explained Houlden, of China's massive and increasing middle class. "And they are a potential source of a lot of money for the B.C. tourism business, and that does include skiing."

Houlden, who has travelled and worked extensively in China, said that while Chinese travellers look for most of the same things as North American ones do, they are more likely to put food and shopping ahead of accommodation.

"(Middle-class Chinese travellers) would rather stay in three- or four-star hotel and spend money on good food and shopping than to stay in a five-star hotel and buy bargain food and not shop," he said.

As for the sale of Grouse to a Chinese firm, Houlden said that it is in line with what American and European firms have been doing for years: diversifying in order to hedge against economic downturns.

According to the China Institute, Chinese commercial transactions have increased dramatically in the past few years, from $32 million in 2013, to $3.4-billion in 2016.

"If you have all your operations in one basket, you are limited by that," explained Houlden.

Snow sports in China, it would seem, are here to stay, and the sale of Grouse could be a reflection of that.

Said Murray: "After people have food on table, a roof over their head, what's next? Recreation."

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