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Niseko is a popular destination for winter sports in Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

Niseko hotels booked up as Japan’s reopening draws tourists from Singapore, Malaysia, elsewhere

  • Tokyo has hinted it may further ease travel curbs, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara saying the country hopes to reopen in time for autumn and winter activities
  • Hotels and other businesses in Hokkaido’s ski resorts now face manpower challenges to cope with a potential influx of foreign tourists

Weeks before the first flurries of snow, hotels in Japan’s winter sports town of Niseko are already fully booked for Christmas and New Year, largely with foreign travellers who have not been able to enjoy what are widely regarded as some of the finest skiing conditions in the world since 2019.

Winter sports fans have been making reservations since Japan last month said it would lift the maximum number of people permitted to enter the country per day to 50,000. That policy went into effect on September 8, but subsequent hints from Tokyo that the cap will be scrapped entirely – probably next month – have further buoyed enthusiasm.
Winter sports are the lifeblood of Niseko, a popular skiing destination. Photo: Shutterstock

Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara said on Sunday he was in favour of dropping the limit on arrivals as well as scrapping tourist visas and the requirement that tourists travel as part of an organised group.

Asked whether the 50,000 limit was appropriate, he said: “I say it is not.”

The government would “soon have a comprehensive review” of border control measures, he said.

“We need to do this sooner rather than later … As countries around the world are resuming exchanges, we cannot lag behind,” he said. “There are many autumn and winter attractions in Japan.”

People walk with a snowboarder at the bottom of a quiet ski slope in Niseko in January 2021. Photo: Getty Images

Winter sports are the lifeblood of Niseko, with more than 10,000 people on the resorts’ numerous slopes every day in peak season before the pandemic, according to Ross Findlay, managing director of Niseko Adventure Centre. The virus had hit hard and numbers were below 1,000 a day last winter, he added.

Hotels throughout the resort are booked solid over the year-end season, Findlay said, with particularly strong interest from Singapore and Malaysia. While Japan has been a favourite destination of Hongkongers, it is not clear how many are likely to travel from Hong Kong due to travel restrictions in the city. Operators are also expecting few people from China due to strict travel limits.

A sudden influx of international arrivals after more than 2½ years of restrictions poses its own problems, however. Staffing for hotels and other businesses in Hokkaido’s ski resorts is arguably the biggest challenge, with properties that have been operating with 20 employees suddenly needing to ramp that up to 200. There is equally a dire shortage of foreign staff to cater to the inbound market, complicated by the need to obtain work visas at short notice to permit them to enter Japan.

An industry analyst agreed that Japan should arguably have permitted freer travel far earlier in the pandemic, but suggested a number of Japan-specific issues were in play.

“There was a general election in July and no political party wanted to be seen to advocate for easing the restrictions when much of the Japanese public was worried about new strains of the virus getting into the country,” said the analyst, who declined to be named.

“Immediately after the election, numbers spiked to record highs and it was clear that was not the time to ease up on the rules,” he added. “Now … I think the government has finally realised the virus is probably not going away for a long time, but that industries and businesses need to get back to normal.

“The pandemic has cost the country dearly, including the inbound tourism sector, but this is also the part of the economy that can bounce back the fastest and help businesses and communities across the country the most rapidly,” he added.

Japan to scrap nearly all curbs on visitors; New Zealand ditches most Covid rules

At the opposite end of the Japanese archipelago, operators in Okinawa are just as delighted at the news that it will soon be easier for tourists to enter the country.

“Four years ago, around 40 per cent of the people coming to Okinawa were from overseas, mostly from Asia, and the prefecture and companies here were working really hard to attract more travellers,” said Makoto Suzuki, an executive of hotel and resort operator Kariyushi International Co.

“Closing the borders left a lot of businesses in limbo and many didn’t survive. But this news means we now have something to look forward to again.”

Reservations are already coming in, with a lot of interest from Taiwan and South Korea, traditionally important markets due to their proximity and ease of access. The scale of the rebound in visitors from Hong Kong was “difficult to estimate” at the moment, Suzuki said, while the Chinese market remained largely closed.
Odawara Castle. The city’s tourism association says it hopes to see more tourists once Japan’s borders are fully reopened. Photo: Handout

Travel firms and regional associations across the country have been using the sector’s enforced downtime to enhance their offerings in the hopes that the pent-up demand will lead to a surge in business in the coming months.

“We are really excited about the possibilities now,” said Naoya Asao, a deputy manager with the tourism association of Odawara, a historic city on the coast two hours southwest of Tokyo.

The association launched online ninja education and training programmes for anyone interested in the city’s heritage, as well as mindfulness and Zen meditation sessions. With the border reopening, Asao said, those programmes could take place in person.

“Foreigners living in Japan have been coming to Odawara Castle and the city’s other attractions, but we hope to see more tourists as soon as the borders are fully open once again,” he said.