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Ice is money in Harbin as snow festival draws visitors

HARBIN, China -- Ice might seem a tough sell in Harbin, one of China's coldest cities, but it has pulled it off with a spectacular annual festival that for many is far more tempting than a warm beach holiday.

The Ice and Snow Festival, which features hundreds of massive sculptures carved out of ice, has become a huge draw for visitors, turning northern China's often forbidding temperatures into a competitive advantage.

"We've had a few copycats. Other cities in north China have opened ice festivals. But they aren't as favored by geography as we are," said Liu Ruiqiang, president of Harbin Modern Group, a tourism and hotel business.

The "Harbin Ice and Snow Big World," a theme park featuring dazzlingly lit sculptures of Chinese palaces, Russian churches and French cathedrals, has benefited from its close proximity to the Songhua River.

"This is much better than I thought it would be. The carvings are really elaborate. I would have expected them to be much cruder," said 23-year-old Harbin Industrial University student Hao Zhifu, one of the visitors. In early December, 15,000 workers began cutting ice blocks from the river's frozen surface, and 16 days and 120,000 cubic meters (4.2 million cubic feet) of ice later, the show was ready.

The speed and efficiency reflect the growing professionalism of an annual event that traces its modest beginnings back to the early 1960s, when the city was a bleak, industrial powerbase for communist China.

Now, as the old style communist economic theories have evaporated and much of the manufacturing has disappeared, the festival reflects the city's efforts to modernize.

In that light, organizers hope it will become an event on a global scale, and apparently it is having success.

In January, when the mercury often creeps below 20 degrees Celsius (minus four Fahrenheit), one would expect those who could afford it to be rushing to the south, but in fact the stream of wealthy visitors is in the opposite direction.

"We've got Koreans, Japanese, Thai, Singaporeans. Especially the Southeast Asians, are fascinated by the snow and the ice. They don't get too much of that where they come from," said Liu, who is also director of the "Big World."

"But our focus will remain on the domestic market. The economy is booming, and so is tourism. And we're offering a choice for the new breed of holiday maker."

On average, the festival records about 800,000 visitors every year, 90 percent of them Chinese, making it hard to find a hotel room during the peak season in January.

At the same time, the festival is not cheap by Chinese standards. Entrance into the "Big World", the festival's main attraction, is 150 yuan (US$21).

"The festival is Harbin's way of saying hello to the world," said 22-year-old Zhang Wei, selling instant coffee at 15 yuan a cup inside the "Big World."

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