Hokkaido tourism picks up ahead of Snow Festival opening

 Saturday, February 4, 2023 


Visits to Japan’s northernmost main island, Hokkaido, by overseas travellers are showing signs of recovery ahead of the opening of the Sapporo Snow Festival on Saturday, driven by a sharp rise in arrivals from South Korea.

The number of inbound tourists staying at hotels and Japanese-style inns is nearing levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

In December last year, overseas tourists accounted for more than 30% of guests at “city hotels” — large hotels in central Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital.

That proportion moving toward the 50% level seen in 2019, although the total number of guests is still below pre-pandemic levels.

The rebound is led by South Korean tourists, whose number more than tripled in December 2022, compared with the same month in 2019.

The increase in December was flattered somewhat by a decline in visits in 2019 due to political tensions between the two countries that year.

Manseikaku, based in Toyako, Hokkaido, operates hotels in host-spring resorts in the prefecture.

Kiyomasa Hamano, Manseikaku’s president, noted that South Koreans have been more reluctant to return to Japan than visitors from China and Southeast Asia.

In the case of South Korea, the ‘charging period’ is long, including the pre-pandemic period, and demand for tourism to Japan is growing, he said, as the diplomatic tension between the two countries have eased over the course of the pandemic.

The Sapporo Snow Festival starts on Saturday and runs through Feb. 11.

The annual event is a major Hokkaido tourist attraction and is likely to be good for Manseikaku’s business. The company’s reservations for February are close to exceeding pre-pandemic levels, Hamano said, having already done so in December last year.

The number of overseas guests at Toyako Manseikaku Hotel Lakeside Terrace surged 64% in December versus the same month in 2019, while South Korean visitors soared 33 times over the same period.

The figure for South Koreans was also 3.4 times higher in December 2022 than in December 2018.

Chitose Airport, the gateway to many tourist destinations in Hokkaido, saw the number of international air passengers jump by a factor of 16 in November 2022 from the previous month to 44,905, although that was still 80% fewer than in November 2019.

But the number of passengers on flights between Chitose and South Korea increased 21% in November 2022 compared with the same month in 2019.

Korean Air resumed regular international flights to Chitose in July last year, becoming the first foreign airline to fly to the regional airport in nearly two and a half years.

As of Jan. 4, six airlines were operating 60 round-trip flights a week between Chitose and South Korea, up 67% from January in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Chitose has service to six countries and regions, including Taiwan and Hong Kong. South Korea has the largest number of overseas routes to Chitose.

Hokkaido Railway, or JR Hokkaido, sells the Hokkaido Rail Pass specifically for overseas tourists, with South Koreans the biggest buyers, at 39% of the total. In December last year 9,200 passes were sold, 70% of the level seen in the same month in 2019.

The winter season should also give overseas tourism to Hokkaido a shot in the arm. According to Taisetsu Kamuimintara DMO, an organization set up by the city of Asahikawa and seven surrounding towns, there is strong interest in snow among tourists from South Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

There is also a string of winter events on the island, including the Sounkyo Onsen Hyobaku Matsuri (Sounkyo Hot Spring Icefall Festival), hosted by Kamikawa, which runs from Jan. 28 through March 12. The Asahikawa Winter Festival will be held from Feb. 7 to 12.

Bus tour operator Sapporo Kanko Bus, headquartered in Sapporo, says it receives several inquiries a day from South Korea about chartered bus bookings, although it does not serve overseas tour groups.

A company official said he thinks that with staffing resources limited, bus operators will have a hard time “keeping up with a sharp recovery in inbound tourism.”

One can hear Chinese spoken more often in Sapporo recently, mostly tourists from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The popularity of Hokkaido as a tourism destination is spreading beyond South Koreans to other foreign nationals, which should provide a tailwind for hotels and restaurants on the island.

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