Behind Heilongjiang’s magic: the challenges of Ice and snow tourism

By By Ma Wenting and Zhang Limei / 08-02-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
The ice lantern art in the Harbin Ice and Snow World
Endowed with spectacular natural advantages, China’s Heilongjiang Province has become a top winter destination, drawing worldwide visitors to China’s northeast for its particular brand of “ice and snow tourism”. Sponsoring the Asian Winter Games in 1996 and later the Winter Universiade in 2009 gradually put Harbin (Heilongjiang’s capital) on the map as a famous international ski destination. It has also become world-renowned for its numerous other winter attractions and events, such as the Harbin Ice and Snow World, Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, Harbin-the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo., and Heilongjiang International Ski Festival of China. Harbin’s ice lantern art in Harbin creates a one-of-a-kind fairy tale landscape.  Its impact has even been felt on the other side of the earth: during the U.S. holiday season, Gaylord hotels have annually exhibited Harbin’s ice lantern art in Orlando, Nashville and Dallas in the U.S. since 2004, bringing people the magic of colorful lights reflected through snow and ice.
With the market for ice and snow tourism growing rapidly, however, Heilongjiang’s native industry faces certain challenges down the line. One the one hand, drawing tourists in a fiercely competitive environment, both domestically and globally, is by no means guaranteed. On the other hand, Heilongjiang’s own offerings have lost some of their luster, as quality and innovative capacity have stagnated or declined. Against these challenges both external and internal, developers in Heilongjiang can look to both foreign expertise and local flavor as remedies.
Many foreign countries with four seasons, such as the U.S., Canada, France, Australia and Switzerland, have established a complete industrial system surrounding winter tourism. These countries possess abundant natural resources and well-developed skiing trails. In building a prosperous industry, many of the world’s winter tourism capitals have incorporated defining local characteristics into their branding and marketing to set themselves apart from the competition. For instance, Canada has ski resorts that are open year-round; Germany, the world’s leading exporter of ski equipments, attracts tourists with commercial exhibitions; Switzerland takes advantage of its splendid topography--its ski resorts are called the “ski paradise of the Alps”; and South Korea’s Gangwon Province boasts several ski resorts replete with year-round golf courses and outdoor hot springs.
Comparatively, China’s winter tourism industry has a very short history and remains underdeveloped. The scale of China’s ski resorts is often quite small, and the quality of facilities is frequently poor. On a broader scale, they lack regional integration. Taking Heilongjiang Province as an example, in years past Harbin Ice and Snow World has looked excessively to western culture to generate interesting content, unable to shore up ideas from local culture and native artistic innovation. Simply put, Heilongjiang is not putting its natural advantages to full use. It should tap into the potential of these advantages to appeal to tourists, following the proven paths of more developed winter tourism sties internationally.
In his book The Comparative Advantage of Nations (1990), Harvard Business School Professor Michael Eugene Porter introduced the term “industrial cluster” (or business cluster), which he defined as “a geographical location where enough resources and competencies amass to reach a critical threshold, giving it a key position in a given economic branch of activity, and with a decisive sustainable competitive advantage over other places, or even a world supremacy in that field”. From the standpoint of this definition, Heilongjiang’s future as a capital of ice and snow tourism lies strengthening regional cooperation and investing in infrastructure—integrating hotels, restaurants, ski areas and scenic spots to establish an industrial chain.   
In spite of turning its eyes westward to pad the displays at Harbin Ice and Snow World, Heilongjiang is by no means lacking its own repository of unique culture and folk traditions from which to draw to stimulate tourism. The province has a significant population of minority ethnic groups, including the Hezhe, Oroqen, Daur and Ewenki. Their unique cultures are embodied in their buildings, costumes, food and festivals, all of which have great potential appeal to tourists and stimulate local economic development, for instance in the form of folk museums built in ski resorts. Since 2012-2013 is the year of Sino-Russian tourism, this is a great opportunity for Heilongjiang to exhibit its offerings to and promote cultural exchange with western countries. Attracting senior managers and experts from abroad and foreign investment, Heilongjiang’s ice and snow tourism will earn a place in the global stage.       
Ma Wenting and Zhang Limei are from Heilongjiang University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 439, Apr. 15, 2013
                                                                                                                            Translated by Zhang Mengying