Courting Chinese Skiers
The Chinese Ski Association estimates that there are now 20 million skiers in China, from just five million in 2005. Given the forecast by Hong Kong research firm CLSA that Chinese travellers could grow to 200 million by 2020, the potential number of travelling Chinese skiers is huge. In a nod to this powerful emerging market, the first ever luxury lifestyle ski show in China was launched in November 2014 with the crème de la crème of the ski world participating, such as resorts from the Alps like Gstaad, St Moritz and Zermatt.
The Alps is the Ultimate
Despite the distance, owning a home in the Alps is the ultimate status symbol for budding Asian skiers. Besides, many of these Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs) already have a second (or more) home or another base in Europe where a child is studying.
It also helps that the Swiss ski property market has always been relatively stable. The recent jewel in the market, the Chedi Andermatt, threw in an extra fat carrot for foreign buyers. Developer Samih Sawiris persuaded the Swiss government to lift restrictions on foreigners buying and selling Chedi property till 2030. Olivier Croonenberghs, partner at Swiss Finance & Property that markets the Chedi, shares that while there has only been one Chinese buyer out of 52 so far, the Chinese remain an important market as the likelihood that more will buy is high, since arrivals to Switzerland from China have jumped as much as 50% in the past three years.
Growing the Aspen of Asia
Though acknowledging that Chinese UHNWIs have traditionally favoured the Swiss industry powerhouses, Jonathan Martin, chairman of Niseko Alpine Accommodation (Nisade) feels very positive that attention will soon turn to Japan, particularly Niseko in Hokkaido. Nisade markets ski properties including a fully-integrated resort in Hanazono that is owned and developed by Nihon Harmony Resorts, a subsidiary of Pacific Century Premium Developments, part of the PCCW Group of Hong Kong, that Richard Li, Li Ka-Shing’s son, owns.
Equally positive is Joseph Yeoh, Vice President, YTL Land & Development and Vice President, YTL Hotels, Malaysian property and hotel conglomerate, which opened Kasara Niseko Village Townhouse, in Niseko Village in December 2014. Yeoh shares that the Chinese are a target group in their marketing plans, adding that he’s encouraged by strong figures from Niseko Promotion Board. This optimism is shared by another Malaysian developer, the Low Yat Group, which launched luxury development, Shiki Niseko at end 2013.
Simon Robinson, founder of Hokkaido Tracks, a ski property realtor, shares that most of the 100%-fold in sales in the last 18 months are to Asian buyers, and the majority of enquiries his company receives are from Chinese buyers. Thus, there seems to be more room for growth. Symphony Asia, an investment company owned by Ong Beng Seng and Christina Ong bought a piece of land in Hirafu. Though director Anil Thadani falls shy of confirming that the land is bought for the purpose of ski lodge development, industry watchmen are very sure it is. “By 2017, we would have around 300 – 400 new condos," estimates Martin. n staggering number, but perhaps the envisioned size of the pie is large enough.
As an investment destination, Niseko seems to have a lot. Japan is the only country in Asia Pacific without restrictions on foreign ownership or capital gains from property. The proximity – no jet lag – is another reason why they are buying. Add Japanese cuisine to the mix, and you have a winner in a market which is very particular about food. Kasara and Hanazono will have restaurants helmed by Michelin-starred chefs, amongst other top-notch facilities, while Shiki already has a Michelin-starred restaurant on its location – Kamimura.
Not all is powdery fine
While the growth story of Niseko is strong, not everyone is over the top about the capital gains or even rental yields that some buyers consider. Andrew Pang, managing Director of Yoo Asia Limited, developer of Loft Niseko, cautions realism if buying for gains. “The town is dead during off-season despite marketing efforts to the contrary." The projected 3% to 5% rental yield for the properties (mostly come with a rental under management option) is too soon to be realised. Fortunately, for most of these HNWI buyers, it’s the idea of being a globetrotter who is able to check into their own homes that seals the deal.
For now, it seems that having your own ski lodge is a status buy, rather than a financial or even lifestyle investment. Whether skiing will take off in a big way among Asians remains to be seen. For many of these novice skiers, getting over the next bunny slope is a challenge. This is why the après ski options such as spa, onsen and shopping, matter as much as, if not more than the quality of the snow, even if at 600 inches on average, is heavier than at some famous Swiss spots.