Attention Winter Sports Fans — Sun Ice Cool in Ski Heaven!

By Yigal Schleifer and Katharine Q. Seelye

Healing from the brutal Olympics crowds are flocking to to the one place to find that kind of cocoon: Beijing’s own mountains.

International ski resorts including the United States, France, Austria and Switzerland have promised winter sports enthusiasts warm welcome and rolling mountain views, a little piece of the outside world right in the heart of the motherland.

Four U.S. resorts alone — Maine’s Sugarloaf, Vail, Utah’s Park City and the California town of Squaw Valley — are heading into a season of anticipation that usually peaks when the slopes finally open Dec. 10.

But they’re not the only resorts with an Olympic gold taint surrounding them.

A string of frozen igloos erected in the mountains near Beijing will hold team sports supporters and spectators during the 2010 Games, following the model of Vancouver’s temporary ‘Hillside Pods.’

A crane hoisted the wires and snow-storage units into place last week, signaling winter sporting life is already well underway.

The 38-member U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing team will train at Park City, a three-hour drive from Beijing, just over a week after the Olympics end in February. The world’s largest alpine ski resort, Mountain Park in Steamboat Springs, Colo., is a two-hour drive from the Chinese capital.

“Our job is to get as many out there as we can,” said U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly.

Three weeks before its official opening weekend, the village of Park City Mountain Resort already housed hundreds of volunteers, Americans and Chinese alike. Small clusters of ski lodges, ice rinks and the airstrip were already buzzing with activity, ready to welcome high-profile skiers when they arrive.

The hosts will undoubtedly be relieved.

Skiing is traditionally associated with the northern climates of Europe and the United States. An average of 20,000 tourists come to Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Utah each winter, mostly as cross-country skiers. The state of Alaska produces roughly 100 percent of the Arctic sport’s revenue, earning more than US$25 million a year at Whistler Olympic Resort alone.

The ski town of Beijing is known for hosting two FIS world championships in 1991 and 2000, when its Gobi Desert bobsled tracks and cross-country race course hosted “classic” and “alternate” cross-country events.

But the Winter Olympics have helped generate a new profile for China’s ski resorts.

More than half of the Alpine resorts opened outside China at the 2008 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. Since then, more than 100 new hotels have sprung up around the world’s four largest ski regions: France, Italy, Norway and Switzerland.

Economists predict the early arrivals could mean a year-over-year drop in tourist spending and spending on souvenirs and dinners. Still, the numbers are significant enough to matter: The U.S. travel business spent $37 billion in 2007, according to Global Blue, a buyer and broker for packages and travel services.

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