Ski Instructors Jan Brand & Li Chun Lei
After chocolate, watches, and cheese, when you think of skiing, you think of Switzerland. Since organised skiing was first developed in Glarus in 1892, this winter sport has been a source of great revenue for the Alps. But with shrinking revenues from European guests, new markets are being developed in the Far East.
The most ambitious of these projects was worthy of a reality show. For the Winter 2013/2014 season, the Swiss Tourism board and Swiss Snowsports held auditions in China to select six Chinese skiers to live and train in Switzerland. Of those lucky six, Li Chun Lei was sent to the Saanenland. Despite limited English (and nonexistent German) skills, the ambitious 42-year old skier took to Gstaad like a fish to water. Hosted by the Brands in Lauenen, Chun Lei was welcomed like family. Jan Brand, director of Gstaad Snowsports and head of the ski school, created a specialised training programme for him, which Chun Lei is currently continuing this year.
This winter, the saga continues; on behalf of Swiss Tourism and the association Swiss Snowsports, Li Chun Lei was invited to spend another winter in Gstaad. The Chinese ski teacher first attended a week of intensive courses to improve his English, before embarking on ski instructing during the holiday period.
GL: Is there a ski culture in China? If so, how is it evolving?
Li Chun Lei: Skiing was first opened to the public in 1996, so the ski culture is very young. We have a few hundred resorts of all sizes, which are spread out mostly in my northeast region of Hailong. Skiing is gaining in popularity but still remains a far-off luxury for most Chinese families. People who live in the ski regions, however, are now starting to take the sport seriously.
GL: How did you become interested in downhill skiing?
LCL: I remember watching the Olympics on television, and thinking, “Wow!” I’d like to do that. It was summer and very hot in China, but I started making my own skis in anticipation of the next winter. I made them completely by hand, chopping wood in the forest and then carving them to the right size and shape.
GL: What do you love most about the sport?
LCL: In general, cities in China are crowded and noisy… but up on the mountains there is peace and calm. I love standing at the top of a slope and just taking it all in, breathing the fresh air and appreciating the beautiful nature around me.
GL: Chun Lei, you live with Jan’s parents Benz and Annelise in Lauenen. How is it to live with a local family?
LCL: I much prefer living with the Brand family than living in a hotel. They’ve taught me so much about Swiss culture. Jan’s father Benz has taught me how to milk cows, and Annelise has even showed me how to make a fondue.
GL: The weather hasn’t exactly been conducive to skiing this winter; how is the ski business?
Jan Brand: First of all, we were only hurt by the lack of snow before Christmas. The holiday week of New Year’s was one of the busiest of the year. January is often quiet but it’s true that this year, we had the surprise of the franc’s 20 % rise against the euro, which certainly didn’t help matters. But there are yet other reasons why skiing is suffering.
GL: You say skiing is declining in popularity. Why?
JB: Let’s face it, skiing is an expensive sport–the slopes have to be maintained and so does the lift equipment. That said, many people continue to choose beautiful Alpine nature, and beautiful things will always have their price.
GL: Seeking out foreign guests from outside Europe must be an even greater priority now. How important is reaching the Asian market?
JB: Very important! China especially is a huge country with a growing upper and middle class, whose appetite for travel is growing. As Chun Lei mentioned, skiing is new to the Chinese, and I think it will continue to evolve in popularity. Despite the new opportunities for skiing in China, a real love for skiing will bring them to the Alps one day, where we have some of the world’s best ski resorts.
GL: You have been called the ‘Perfect Ambassador for Gstaad’ by Gstaad-Saanenland Tourism, Chun Lei. How do you feel about this title?
LCL: It’s true I have been very active on the social networks in China, especially Weibo, which is our equivalent to Facebook. I like posting photos and comments about my life here in Switzerland, to show the Chinese people just how fantastic the skiing is, and how beautiful the scenery.
GL: Chun Lei, do you spend the whole day teaching on the slopes?
LCL: This year, in addition to teaching skiing, I’m acting as a full guide for Chinese guests. Because of the language issue, they have a problem from the first moment they arrive at the airport. I come to pick them up and help them get to Gstaad, and arrive at their hotel. This quiet time with guests gives me the opportunity to talk about the Saanenland, and explain what I know about Swiss culture, history, and sports.
GL: Jan, what sort of specialized training is Chun Lei receiving?
JB: As of yet, there is no official recognition for ski instructors in China. That’s a big part of why Chun Lei is here, to learn not only more about skiing technique, but safety and pedagogy focusing on children’s ski lessons as well. In 2001, Switzerland began requiring that all ski instructors pass a series of exams to obtain a license. Chun Lei is currently completing the first of four levels in the Swiss system.
GL: Local knowledge is one of the reasons those raised in the Saanenland represent a majority of the ski instructors. However, wouldn’t more Russian and Chinese workers be a boon to the region?
JB: Some foreign workers do come to work the winter season; however, their numbers remain minimal. As the only Chinese-speaking instructor at Gstaad Snowsports, Li Chun Lei’s role is vital for our Chinese guests who speak no other language but Mandarin or Cantonese.
GL: What are the qualities of a superior ski instructor?
JB: Skills like good knowledge of the weather and snow conditions are necessary, especially for guided trips off-piste, where the risk of avalanche is especially high this season. The instructors must not only be expert skiers, but well-rounded snow sportsmen.
GL: Has studying, training, and working in Gstaad helped your career in China?
LCL: Yes! Thanks to my time in Gstaad and the press I’ve received back home, I was offered a position managing a ski resort last year. That’s why I’m only here in Gstaad twice for several weeks at a time–my employer in China needs me.
GL: The winter only lasts so long, and it’s clear that ski instructors must find other work during the rest of the year; how do you spend this time?
JB: As director of the ski school, I have a year-round position. In the off-season there is quite a lot of administration and marketing to take care of, and I do take a whole month off in summer to spend time with my two children.
LCL: My new job as director of a ski resort is year-round. We are talking about ways to expand our summer offerings, perhaps by building a golf course.
GL: What is your opinion on the the financial problems of the mountain railways company, the BDG?
Are you worried that closing certain installations or even bankruptcy will hurt your business?
JB: I’m on the board of the BDG so I am fully aware that there are some changes that will be made. We are working hard to solve the situation and come up with a solution that fits our needs and creates a solid future for skiing in the region.