By Steve White
Today tourism is ever-more essential to Japan’s economic well-being. It was only in 2013 that arrivals topped 10 million for the first time; in 2019 the figure was more than three times that. The Tokyo Olympics – now re scheduled for 2021 – are expected to help drive overall arrivals towards 40 million.
Having said that due to Covid-19 tourism this season has been hit hard with international travel halted, however there is good news, domestic tourism is expected to increase as the government hands out strong incentives to residences to travel and spend money internally in Japan called the 'Go To Campaign' - they have set aside 1.7 trillion JPY (15.7 billion USD) for boosting tourism in Japan, and with so many people having been confined for so long where better to go than Hokkaido & Niseko where there is so much space & solitude.
Growth in Niseko has been explosive: there were fewer than 32,000 visitors in 2008 but almost 220,000 in 2017. In the last couple of years, growth in demand from traditional markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore has flattened off but countries as diverse as China, Thailand and the UK have propelled overall figures with double-digit year-on-year increases.
The trend seems set to continue, especially in the case of China where there is a huge pool of tourists-in-waiting given the small share of the population currently holding passports. After Beijing won the staging rights for the 2022 Winter Olympics, China’s President Xi Jinping decreed that by then China should have 300 million people taking part in winter sports – a 20-fold increase in under a decade!
Niseko is well placed to help the Chinese towards that goal, with Hokkaido just a short flight from their capital. Sapporo aims to extend the Olympic connection too, becoming the first place to throw its hat into the ring to host the 2030 Winter Olympics, with Niseko Village already earmarked to host the alpine events.
But Niseko is not only about the snow. While the winter makes all the headlines, the outdoors scene offers something for everyone, year-round, thanks to the high latitude that keeps the weather mellower than over in Honshu.
Though most snow falls in January and February, it usually persists into April at least. For skiers looking for one last powder fix, the classic ‘bluebird’ days of March are ideal for bagging picturesque runs backdropped by the iconic form of Mount Yotei.
Then the melt begins, swelling the rivers and turning them into ideal playgrounds for rafting and kayaking. The warming temperatures and blossoming spring flowers lure foreign drivers to explore the excellent and relatively traffic-free roads – visiting vibrant Sapporo with its historic sights and nightlife, the popular seafood mecca of Otaru, bucolic Lake Toya or perhaps heading for more distant Hokkaido destinations such as Abashiri or the Shiretoko Peninsula.
SnowDog Villages Managing Partner at the top of Mount Yotei
The Niseko summer brings plenty of sun without the aggressive humidity of further south in Japan – perfect for long days hiking mountain trails, or biking on road or trail as preferred. Horse-riding and golf are two other popular options: there are said to be 10 golf courses within a 30-minute drive of Niseko. Returning to the resort afterwards, the lovely golden evenings are perfect for outdoors dining or just admiring the mountains, wine or sake glass close-at-hand.
Autumn sets the trees aflame with reds and oranges and conditions are right for longer biking adventures, or for more sedate ways to sightsee – on the rails behind the SL (steam locomotive) Niseko perhaps that runs between Sapporo and Rankoshi from mid-September to the start of November. As the nights carry the first hints of winter, retreat to the onsen for a therapeutic, warming soak.
The year-round activities and sights enhance the all-round marketability of the area: buy and cherry-pick your favourite times of year to visit, then let the place the rest of the year. Winters are the most lucrative of course and many owners hold off on their own skiing plans to maximise their returns in the busiest period of all around Chinese New Year – typically falling in late January or February.
SnowDog Village is already seeing higher domestic inquires than before, ready for when they reopen in July 2020. This is great news for now and the future of Niseko tourism, as it is likely that this will kick start a trend for Japanese to holiday closer to home, and obviously with it's famous champagne snow international tourists will flock back once travel is permitted, making Niseko one of the great 'All Season' holiday destinations
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Steve White - has more than 25 years’ experience in the publishing industry, much of it as an editor-in-chief for the Hong Kong subsidiary of SPH (Singapore Press Holdings). Specialising in the adventure and luxury travel sector, he headed up Action Asia magazine and contributed content to the group’s other brands including AsiaSpa, LP Luxury Properties and Jet Asia-Pacific, as well as for a slew of other regional titles. As an acknowledged expert on travel in Asia, he has been called on to appear at seminars and conferences around the region. He is a regular visitor to Japan and especially enjoys Hokkaido and snow boarding in Niseko