By China Daily
Changchun, the capital city of Northeast China’s Jilin province, attracts worldwide attention each winter by hosting the International Vasaloppet Ski Festival.
The festival is a combination of ski races, an ice and snow sculpture exhibition and a range of other activities that bring tourists from China and abroad to the city.
“The ski race festival has become the city’s signature event, and now more people in China and abroad know the city because of the race,” said Chen Keshi, director of tourism administration at Jingyue Economic Development Zone in Changchun.
This year’s festival started in December and will last until March 15. A total of seven races and 19 holiday events will be held during the festival.
It is the first time the city has hosted the festival since Changchun’s entry into the internationally recognized Worldloppet Ski Federation in Italy in June.
Founded in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1978, the Worldloppet promotes cross-country skiing by staging races between member states around the world.
Guan Shusen, director of the administrative committee of the Jingyue Economic Development Zone, said Changchun has spent 13 years building up to membership of the federation.
“It is a milestone for Chinese ski sports that the festival in Changchun has been recognized by the Worldloppet Ski Federation,” Guan said.
Membership has also come as China prepares its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The winning host country will be announced next summer.
The Vasaloppet originated from Sweden 90 years ago as a 90-kilometer cross-country ski race.
It is named after Swedish king Gustav Vasa, who escaped from the army of Christian II, king of Denmark, in 1521, skiing all the way back to his supporters to fight the Danish ruler again, and win.
Its history makes it one of the oldest and most popular cross-country ski races in the world.
In 2001, a Swedish sports event organization, Nordic Ways, found that Jingyuetan in Changchun was an ideal place for a cross-country ski race.
The first Vasaloppet in Changchun was held in 2003. China became the fourth country in the world to host the winter event following Sweden, the United States and Japan.
The race was regarded as a way of connecting the city with the rest of the world. A total of 750 skiing enthusiasts showed up in that first run in Changchun in 2003.
This year, more than 10,000 professional and amateur skiers from 25 countries joined the gala and experienced the snow city of China.
Chen from the tourism administration believes that the Vasaloppet benefits both tourists and local people.
She said that it boosts China’s ski sports and Changchun’s tourism, as well as giving talented skiers a chance to practice and train.
“We create a platform for our athletes to compete with international athletes on our soil,” Chen said.
She said the Vasaloppet has captured local people’s interest in ski sports and has made skiing a popular sport in Changchun.
The festival has become a fixture for tourists from China and abroad who enjoy ice and snow events, Chen said.
Ice and snow have contributed to regional economic growth as well. Sweden receives about $7 billion income each year with more than 15 million international sports enthusiasts visiting the country to enjoy the snow.
“Our city can make it too,” Chen added.
However, the festival is not just about income. Vasaloppet is also encouraging local people to pursue a healthier lifestyle.
Chen said: “In Changchun, we use the term maodong to describe an old popular lifestyle, which means that people preferred to stay indoors, avoiding the freezing temperatures.
“However, the ski festival showed people another lifestyle, involving sports and fresh air, and makes people come out of their homes and take exercise.”
Bjorn Lind, general manager of Nordic Ways Vasa Management Ltd and a former winter Olympic champion, agreed.
“It is a healthy lifestyle, worth government investment,” Lind said, adding that the health benefits can reduce health problems.
Lind said he has now seen people in Changchun start to join in sports and other activities.
“People start to do that and they can feel it doing them good,” he added.
According to Zhang Zhanhai, general manager of Changchun Jingyuetan Tourism Development Group Co Ltd, the ski race also gives college students an opportunity to learn to ski.
“Vasaloppet is providing a place for 60,000 college students to learn to ski this year. In 2003, less than 1,000 college students participated,” Zhang said.
“They might not be trained to professional standard, but they may fall in love with snow and ski. Many students from the south never saw snow before.
“We plant a seed in their hearts. Some, with talent, may take the opportunity to become professionals. Others, probably the majority, may remember skiing as one of the greatest moments of their lives,” Zhang added.
He said the city’s next move is to encourage middle school students to take skiing as part of the physical education curriculum.
The Vasaloppet festival has also brought Changchun onto the international stage.
Thanks to the festival, the city has now formed a sisterhood relationship with the town of Mora in Sweden, which historically supported King Gustav Vasa in his fight against the Danes.
Changchun, with its population of 7.8 million, is now becoming well known to Swedish and European ski lovers.
“We are trying to bring more Chinese elements into the design of the festival, aiming to build the festival as a cultural event rather than solely focusing on sports,” Chen said.
During the festival, the city holds an economic and trade exposition, called the Vasaloppet Economic and Trade Fair.
It is one of the most important business events held during the course of the festival, and attracts more investment to the city.
More than 100 billion yuan ($15.8 billion) has been invested in Changchun over the past decade, thanks to the winter gala.
Since Changchun gained the Worldloppet Ski Federation’s recognition in June, Guan Shusen, director from the economic zone, said the Changchun Vasaloppet would strive to involve more local residents from now on.
“The race organization and services need to reach international standards,” Guan said, adding that the city will promote ski sports among local residents.
“It will raise the public awareness of the sport. Everybody can take part in it and everyone can have the chance to be a champion,” Guan added.
As a comprehensive international winter event combining sports, business, tourism and creative activities, the festival has become “one of the best platforms to boost the economy and promote the city’s image”, said Guan. “It will become even more diverse and popular in the future.”
Original title by China Daily: Changchun’s skiing success looks set to snowball