Davos: From global elite hub to rising ski destination for China

    With all eyes here during the annual World Economic Forum summit, Davos is also nurturing its potential as a winter sports destination for China’s jet set.
    The picturesque winter scenery of Davos, Switzerland. Image: shutterstock
    Jason WangAuthor
      Published   in Travel

    Every January, Davos takes center stage, capturing the world's attention for a week during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

    This small Swiss alpine village becomes a magnet for global elites, drawing influential figures such as Bill Clinton, Christine Legarde and Bill Gates to its slopes. As skiing and snowboarding gain popularity in China, experts predict that it may soon emerge as the next sought-after leisure destination for the country's elites and affluent individuals.

    The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics acted as a catalyst, propelling exponential growth in China's ice and snow industry. By the end of 2021, over 340 million people had engaged in various winter sports. Renowned Chinese CEOs, including Wang Shi (founder of China Vanke), Lei Jun (founder of Xiaomi), and Michael Yu (founder of New Oriental Education), are frequently spotted on ski slopes worldwide.

    With the World Economic Forum increasingly attracting Chinese entrepreneurs and the ultra-rich, industry analysts perceive a natural connection, positioning Davos as the upcoming chic skiing destination for the Chinese elite.

    Skiing and other winter sports have emerged as a new hobby for China's wealthy jet set elite.
    Skiing and other winter sports have emerged as a new hobby for China's wealthy jet set elite.

    Mark Thomas, managing director of S2M Consulting, a China-focused sports event company, says: “Wealthy Chinese people now very much see themselves as part of the international elite and in this ‘jet-set’ community winter sports holidays are part of the lifestyle norm so it’s only natural for those Chinese high-net-worth individuals to join that club and follow suit.”

    Thomas believes that the rising popularity of winter sports in China will be a crucial driver for global winter sports tourism. Resorts like Davos are expected to benefit significantly from this trend.

    Strategic Investments and Initiatives: Davos Prepares for the Influx#

    Destination Davos Klosters, the regional tourism board, began investing in the Chinese market back in 2014. The primary focus was on attracting Foreign Individual Travelers (FITs) who prefer small group or family travel over large group/bus tourism and highlight sightseeing.

    In 2024, Switzerland Tourism launched a pilot project, "Chinese ski instructors," targeting the world’s most populous nation. The Destination Davos Klosters was among the eight Swiss destinations involved, aiming to further appeal to the Chinese market and solidify its position in the global winter sports landscape.

    Samuel Rosenast, head of communications and content at Destination Davos Klosters, underscores the significance of seizing the opportunity presented by the escalating popularity of skiing in China. He states, "The rising popularity of skiing in China is certainly a great opportunity for us. But it is for all destinations in Europe and North America. It is therefore essential that we take this potential seriously and invest accordingly in the Chinese market. Thanks to the World Economic Forum, Davos should also be well known in China. This can be an advantage when developing the market."

    Davos is home to the World Economic Forum's annual meeting each January. Image: Shutterstock
    Davos is home to the World Economic Forum's annual meeting each January. Image: Shutterstock

    Rosenast highlights Davos Klosters' diverse offerings, including cross-country skiing, lifestyle experiences, iconic train rides, and health tourism, setting it apart from other winter sports destinations. The destination boasts a well-known and sizeable congress center, a major pillar of its destination strategy.

    Surging Winter Tourism: 400 percent increase from China to Switzerland#

    Before the onset of the pandemic, winter tourism from China to Switzerland witnessed a remarkable surge, registering a staggering 400 percent increase over the past decade. This growth surpassed that of any other source market, as reported by Switzerland Tourism.

    Daniela Chiani, greater China director at Switzerland Tourism, underscores the evolving landscape, stating, “While Chinese tourists increasingly explore Switzerland during the winter season, there remains a notable absence of Chinese skiers or snowboarders on Swiss slopes. I am convinced that the untapped potential in this segment is enormous for Switzerland. Hence, the winter campaign stands as a cornerstone of Switzerland Tourism's key initiatives in the Chinese market.”

    Chiani predicts that the heightened interest in snow sports in China will likely influence global product development and services. Resorts and destinations aspiring to attract Chinese winter guests must delve deeper into understanding the unique needs of the Chinese market, crafting tailor-made offerings to cater to this growing demographic.

    China's Skiing Market: A Global Force#

    Wu Bin, author of the China Ski Industry White Book, forecasts China's skiing market's rapid growth, anticipating a skier population exceeding 40 million in the next five years. This trajectory positions China on track to gradually approach or even exceed leading skiing countries such as the United States, France, and Austria.

    Wu suggests that Davos has the potential to attract more Chinese elites in the future, contingent on the World Economic Forum incorporating themes related to Chinese entrepreneurs or extending invitations to more Chinese entrepreneurs. Presently, Hokkaido in Japan remains the preferred skiing destination for Chinese billionaires. The evolving dynamics of the skiing market and the strategic alignment of global events will likely influence the preferences of Chinese elites in their choice of skiing destinations, he adds.

    Laurent Vanat, the author of the annual International Report on Snow and Mountain Tourism, emphasizes the significant impact on the global ski industry due to China's emergence as a formidable market with immense potential.

    “It has been adding up 20 million of skier visits in the yearly visitation recorded by the industry worldwide, compensating for the decline in several other markets. It is estimated that China has also been adding 30 million of skiers to the 115 million that were estimated worldwide at the beginning of the 2000s,” he adds.

    While overseas ski travel remains a niche market for Chinese enthusiasts, Vanat acknowledges that its significance is poised to endure. Given the vast population of China, even a niche market holds substantial importance.

    Vanat emphasizes that Davos is well-suited to attract Chinese skiers, offering a vast ski area, stunning mountain scenery, snow reliability, internationally acclaimed hotels, and global recognition through events like the World Economic Forum. The presentation of a pair of skis by the Swiss President to President Xi notably elevated Davos's popularity among Chinese visitors, he adds.

    • The popularity of skiing and snowboarding in China is expected to drive global winter sports tourism, with resorts like Davos poised to benefit significantly from this trend, as evidenced by a 400 percent increase in winter tourism from China to Switzerland in the decade prior to the pandemic.
    • Strategic investments and initiatives, such as the "Chinese ski instructors" pilot project launched by Switzerland Tourism aim to cater specifically to the Chinese market.
    • For destinations looking to attract the burgeoning Chinese skiing market, understanding and catering to the unique needs and preferences of Chinese winter sports enthusiasts through tailor-made offerings and experiences is crucial.
    • The future of global skiing destinations, including Davos, hinges on their ability to engage with and accommodate the preferences of Chinese skiers, who are rapidly becoming a formidable force in the global ski market, with potential implications for product development and service offerings worldwide.
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