Even by the big-thinking, grand-planning standards of contemporary China, the under-construction Secret Garden, a $6 billion ski, golf and adventure resort in the country’s northeast, is a project of spectacularly large proportions.
When the work is finished, it will have 82 ski runs, chairlifts and gondolas that can carry 18,000 guests a day; five championship golf courses; a theme park, a 3,000-person capacity convention center; 2,700 hotel rooms; an ice skating rink and trails for mountain biking and horse riding.
The main investors, who run the Genting Highlands resort complex in Malaysia, are confident that the hunger for top-class facilities among newly-affluent Chinese will ensure the success of the Hebei province project.
“It will be one of the leading resorts in the world,” says Justin Downes, president of the consultancy Axis, hired by the investment company, VXL, to advise on the adventurous scheme during the initial stages.
Downes has had a long career operating such large-scale winter resorts in Canada, the United States and Australia, and sees huge potential for the Secret Garden.
“It will be very easy to access, particularly for the 30 million people who live in and around Beijing. People in China are ready for this kind of development. It will bring in 21st century technology.”
The resort is the brainchild of Lim Chee Wah, whose family already runs the Genting Highlands complex in Malaysia, a destination that draws some 20 million visitors a year, many of whom are lured by casinos.
Lim, a long-term China resident, runs the Hong Kong-headquartered VXL group, which has investments in the information, communication and technology sector in Malaysia, along with property development and tourism interests in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland.
The Secret Garden is in an area that is already home to ski resorts, but it is not particularly easy to access at the moment. That will all change next year, when the new high-speed railway line from Beijing to far-western Urumqi opens, with the first station in Zhangjiakou City, a mere 20-minute shuttle ride from the ski slopes. That means the entire journey from downtown Beijing to the Secret Garden will take just over an hour.
But the owners are not just targeting people in the capital. The aim is to attract people from all over China and other parts of Asia. A close-by military airport will be converted, so it can be used for civilian flights.
To date, around more than $150 million has been invested, with estimates that the figure will grow to $6 billion by the time all the elements are completed, in a decade’s time.
The first part of the Secret Garden will open this coming winter, allowing ski enthusiasts to try the newly-created slopes; by the following December, a 350-room hotel and various restaurants and bars will be operational.
Lim, who is a keen skier himself, plans to open the rest of the complex in phases. The master plan provides for five championship golf courses starting with a par-72, 103-yard facility designed by Golf Plan of Santa Rosa, California. The course will be open for play in early 2013. Mountain biking, horse-riding and hiking trails will be built, along with an ice skating rink and a theme park.
As well as tourists, the owners hope to draw conventions and conferences and, to that end, will build a convention centre that can host 3,000 delegates. The idea is that the Secret Garden is in use 365 days a year, attracting outdoor-lovers in the summer months as well as winter skiers.
The Malaysian investor, who is the youngest son of the late Lim Goh Tong, founder of the Genting Group, has had his eye on the site for more than a decade. It took a long time to obtain government approval for the mega-project, which will eventually cover a 100-square-kilometer area.
The master plan, drawn up by the industry leaders in such schemes, as Ecosign and Hornberger + Worstell of San Francisco connects five valleys and three mountain peaks, linking over 250 hectares of skiing area and 65 kilometers of trails. The core village project, spread over 500,000 square meters, is located in the third valley and will be known as the Goh Tong Highlands Resort.
The developers have the ambition to create a place that will be spoken of in the same breath as the world-class resorts at Whistler in Canada or the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Certainly, it will set new standards for China as an international mega-resort within easy reach of Beijing.
“There is nothing like it in China at the moment but that is not to say there won’t be in future,” says consultant Downes.
“Right now, if you are a tourist, or a resident of Northeast China, you don’t associate it with tourism, but a lot of people in this part of the world are craving this kind of activity.”