MORE Singaporeans are warming up to the idea of a cool holiday option - skiing - this year-end.
This peak travel period coincides with winter in the Northern hemisphere, putting resorts from Europe and Canada to Korea, China and Japan on the radar for holiday-makers.
Industry sources say a winter storm of factors has contributed to more Singaporeans whooshing down the slopes or just chilling out in these multiple-attraction resorts.
For one thing, many Singaporeans are well-travelled and have been there and done that, so they are now moving on to sample other delights like winter sports.
The opening up of more resorts, especially in China, has also allowed travel agents to introduce more packages and customise deals for hardcore fans.
Which is why business has grown at least 35 per cent for some travel operators this year.
Ms Jane Chang, a spokesman for Chan Brothers Travel, notes that 7 per cent of Singaporeans have travelled to an international destination for physical adventures and sports this year, according to the MasterCard MasterIndex of Travel H1 2007.
"We imagine skiing would constitute a fair proportion," she says.
Ms Alicia Seah, vice-president, leisure, at UOB Travel Planners, says skiing became an option five years ago when a number of agents started marketing programmes in Korea and Japan.
Response was moderate initially as "most Singaporeans cannot stay out in the cold for more than two hours", she says.
But industry sources say interest has picked up in the last two years, especially given that more Singaporeans have been exposed to winter pursuits when they were studying or working abroad in, say, Canada or Europe.
"They request to stay in the ski resorts for at least three to four days and enjoy the activity to their hearts' content," says Ms Seah of the new demand.
Her agency is sending almost 450 travellers to Japan and Korea from this month to March next year.
Then there are others who are making their first skiing runs, based on word of mouth or on what they have seen on travel shows on TV.
Teacher Juliana Goh, 24, is heading to the Daemyung Vivaldi Ski Resort in Korea next month with two friends, paying $1,682 for an eight-day WTS Travel package.
Even though she will be spending only one day and one night at the ski resort, she says: "The main interest and focus of our trip will actually be the skiing part.
"I'm definitely open to the idea of going on a longer ski holiday in future, if it turns out to be as exhilarating as so many people make it out to be."
POWDER POWER: Ski above the clouds on Mount Emei. With its relatively low prices, China is now a winter sport hotspot. [Photo: Chan Brothers Travel]
Bunny slope boom
BEGINNERS usually opt for a package which packs a one- to two-day stay in a ski resort as part of a six- to eight-day itinerary.
They enjoy a full-day rental of ski equipment and lessons from a qualified trainer.
Business is booming in agencies such as SA Tours which is logging a 35 per cent rise in the number of winter group tours to China and Korea for this month and next, compared to the same period last year.
Its spokesman Ruth Lim says Korea is the most popular destination, with prices starting from $1,788 for its eight-day premium package.
Over at Chan Brothers Travel, Ms Chang, too, says Korean ski packages are bestsellers, with a 90 per cent take-up rate.
Dynasty Travel says its seven- and eight-day packages to Korea are sold out for the November- December period. It is experiencing a 20 per cent increase in business compared to last year.
K drama has certainly given Korean resorts a great boost.
Take the case of Mr Chris Woon, 27, a student, who says: "I always thought that the best places for skiing were in Europe or North America."
That was before he watched Korean soap Winter Sonata which featured captivating winter scenery.
He has since visited Yongpyong Resort, a filming location for Winter Sonata, and also the site of events such as the World Cup of Ski and Asian Winter Games.
Travel agents say China is emerging as a hotspot for winter sports. For Harbin in north-east China, the ski season can start as early as October and last till about late April.
Lower costs and a familiar language are also pull factors.
Chan Brothers has an eight-day Beijing and Xian/Shanghai package with a one-day stay at Nanshan Ski Resort from $1,388, compared to a seven- day package to Hokkaido in Japan, with one day of skiing at either Olympics Ski Field, Furano Ski Ground or Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium, starting from $1,988.
Free-and-easy packages are recommended for those who want to spend more time skiing.
UOB Travel Planners, for instance, can draw up customised itineraries to Niseko and Teine in Hokkaido, Japan.
Ms Dina Al Herais, a spokesman for Emirates Holidays, says: "Most of the packages that our customers request are for a week, allowing them to get the most out of their ski holidays."
She says Austria, Switzerland, France and Italy are some popular countries.
Generally, however, travel agents say far-flung places like the Swiss Alps, French Alps and Canadian Rockies are exotic but expensive.
Eight- to 10-day packages to Switzerland and France can cost from $1,800 to over $2,000, which is 60 to 80 per cent higher than trips of the same duration to Korea or China.
But whether it is honing your skills on the 31 slopes of Korea's Yongpyong Valley Dragon resort, chilling out at the state-of-the-art facilities in China's Nanshan resort or having a romantic time at Chamonix in the French Alps, the activity has also brought in cold hard cash for another business.
Stores selling ski clothing and gear report an increase in customers.
|5 things to do
1 Do put on thermal wear to keep your body warm. Pair this with a raincoat or jacket.
2 Do have enough rest in between skiing runs, especially if you extend your stay. First-timers may find they have sore muscles.
3 Do protect your eyes as the air can be very dry and cause discomfort, especially for those who wear contact lenses. A pair of army goggles will suffice.
4 Do wear a jacket with a collar high enough to protect your neck. Scarves might get in the way.
5 Do wear gloves at all times.
1 Don't invest in expensive gear. Cheap rentals are available at the resorts.
2 Don't over-extend your stay if you are a first-time skier. Make sure you try out the sport before diving in.
Mr Xavier Goh, 29, the manager of outdoor apparel shop Campus Corner, says business is up by 20 to 25 per cent this year, compared to last year.
Mr Tay Eng Hock, 49, a partner of outdoor apparel shop, X-Boundaries, says sales of ski socks, headwear and gear have gone up by as much as 200 per cent, compared to last year.
According to him, some customers are willing to splurge as much as $700 on a high-quality outer- shell ski jacket. Others are willing to fork out about $500 for a set of good ski pants.
"Those willing to buy are those who have skied before, and they want to pick it up and go back every year," he says.
Mr Nik Ang, 35, a partner in SkiVenture, a ski and snowboarding school here, is also a beneficiary, with a 10 to 15 per cent increase in student numbers since its opening in 2000. He now has about 100 students a year.
The ski instructor, with eight years of experience, organises classes for up to 30 people in destinations such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Costs start from $3,200 for a five-day trip to New Zealand, and about $3,600 to Japan, inclusive of gear rental and accommodation but not meals.
Mr Ang even has students in their 50s who want to pick up the sport.
"What makes the trips fun is being able to do something you like with a group of friends," he says.
To him, skiing is more than just being a tourist in a foreign country. "It's about being a tourist in another world," he adds.
|Cool ski tours
EXCEPT for the customised packages, all these are general tours offering city and sightseeing activities besides a one- or two-day stay at a ski resort.
8 days Jiuzhaigou + Mount Xiling + Huashuishan from $888
(SA Tours, tel: 6532-4111)
10 days North-eastern China Snowy Christmas Dalian/Shenyang/Changchun/Jilin/Harbin from $1,538 (SA Tours, tel: 6532-4111)
7 days Fabulous Hokkaido Tour from $1,988 (Chan Brothers, tel: 6438-8880)
ANA package on a 6D4N Rusutsu and Art Hotel for Free & Easy Ski Package from $1,696 (UOB Travel Planners, tel: 6252-6822).
UOB Travel Planners also provides customised itineraries to Niseko and Teine in Hokkaido
PHOTO: DAEMYUNG VIVALDI PARK
8 days Korea Discovery + Jeju Premium Package from $1,788
(SA Tours, tel: 6535-8911)
6 days Korea Winter Special from $1,188 (Dynasty Travel, tel: 6338-4455)
7 days Lyon, Chamonix and Paris Explorer from $1,828 (Free & Easy)
(Chan Brothers, tel: 6438-8880)
9 or 10 days Switzerland and Paris Tour from $2,368 (ASA, tel: 6303-5303)