Harbin, China's world renowned ice sculpture festival is something that its sister city of Minneapolis, Minnesota hopes to emulate in the future. Image: Flickr user Don Felix.

Minneapolis Mayor Seeks Tourism Advice from Sister City in China


Like many northern cities, Minneapolis – where January temperatures frequently plunge below 0°F – struggles to attract tourists in the depths of winter. In 2012, the Minnesota hospitality industry grossed more the $12.5 billion (over $8 billion of which was generated in the Twin Cities) and spawned nearly 250,000 jobs, accounting for 11% of total state employment in the private sector. Unsurprisingly, less than a quarter of these benefits were accrued between December and March. Various promotional gimmicks have been launched to boost tourism throughout the cold months: a winter sport-themed scavenger hunt has become an annual tradition, and last year, officials contemplated enticing visitors from warmer climes by offering them ready-made packages of winter clothing upon arrival. Newly-inducted Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is seeking fresh ideas for drawing sightseers to her city during the bitter Midwestern freeze.

Half a world away, the city of Harbin in the Heilongjiang Province of China gears up for its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Harbin, which bears the nickname “City of Ice” and is the northernmost major metropolis in China, has hosted the event annually since 1985, attracting over 28.5 million tourists in the past two years alone. China’s renowned ice sculptors – most of them hand-picked for training as young children – toil for months to carve elaborate statues and replicas out of several hundred thousand cubic meters of frozen water. This year’s spectacle, which takes place between January 5 and February 25, features a 46 meter-high rendition of the Hallgrimskirkja Church in Iceland, a model of the Colosseum, an ice palace, and a 240 meter slide.

Minneapolis and Harbin – which are separated by less than one degree of latitude and share similar climates – became sister cities in 1992 after a year of consultations. In an effort to capitalize on and strengthen this relationship, Mayor Hodges has scheduled a visit to Harbin this January, hoping to glean insights into winter tourism. She and other state officials, including the CEO of Meet Minneapolis and a board member of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association, will tour the festival and pay a visit to the “Cold Zone Expo,” a trade fair designed to foster partnerships among winter-weather businesses throughout the world. Hodges’ delegation will also endeavor to promote corporations like Cargill, a Minneapolis-based agricultural firm with offices in Harbin.

Ice sculpting is thought to have originated in China in the sixteenth century, when hunters would fashion pails of ice into makeshift windproof lanterns, and remains an important cultural export. It is hoped that this frosty facet of northern Chinese civilization will soon find a warm reception in Minneapolis.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.