Covid-19 leaves Japan’s ski resorts deserted amid perfect conditions for famed Japow powder snow


The snow this winter on Japan’s ski runs and the powder on the off-piste is probably the best it has been in a decade. Unfortunately, there is virtually no one to enjoy it as foreign winter sports fans are not permitted to enter the country due to the coronavirus pandemic and worried Japanese are opting to batten down the hatches and stay at home.
The result is that resort operators, hotels, ski schools and all the related businesses, from owners of rental properties to restaurants, rental shops and stores in towns that would usually be overrun at this time of year, are struggling to stay in business.
The industry was hit hard by poor snow conditions last year, operators say, and it is ironic that this year, with perfect conditions, the slopes are deserted. The only thing to do, they say, is to hang on and hope that things return to normal next season.
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Some may not make it that far, they admit, while the bankruptcies could begin to pile up if the pandemic wipes out next winter as well.
Daniel Mee, a New Zealander who owns the Hakuba Snow Sports School in one of Japan’s most famous winter sports destinations, says this year has been “grim”.
“We have done less than 5 per cent of the business that we did last year,” he said. “Every year since we opened in 2009 we have got bigger and we are contracted to provide instruction for people from overseas markets, primarily Singapore , Hong Kong , Australia, Malaysia and, increasingly, Indonesia.”
And while Hakuba, high in the Japanese Alps in Nagano Prefecture, has seen what 45-year-old Mee describes as “absolutely epic conditions” this year, his business is merely ticking over, with the occasional expatriate family his only clients.
“I had 70 instructors last year but this season it’s just 20 and most of them don’t have anything to do, so I’ve told them to get out on the slopes and just improve their skills,” he said.
“It’s inevitable that some companies are not going to make it, but that’s the same for any sort of travel company the world over at the moment,” he said. “And if the pandemic goes on for one more year, then there will be carnage in the industry.”
Shorn of the international travellers who have in recent years flocked to Japanese ski resorts, operators had hopes that home-grown travellers who were not able to travel abroad might take advantage of the situation and pick up some of the slack.
There were expectations that subsidies available under the government’s “Go To Travel” campaign would encourage some to hit the slopes this winter, but rising coronavirus numbers forced the authorities to suspend the travel promotion programme in late December, just as the season was about to get into full swing. To make matters even worse, a state of emergency has been declared for Tokyo, Osaka and eight other prefectures across the country, with the public asked to strictly limit the time they spend mixing with other people.
Some operators have already been forced to shut down. In December, Yubari Resort, which operates hotels and related facilities in Hokkaido, announced it would be filing for bankruptcy as cases soared. Another operator, Mizuho Resort, has suspended business at properties in western Japan to reduce costs. Others may not be far behind.
“It would be fair to say that the business has been severely affected by Covid-19 and I would estimate that, across the industry in Japan, we are down between 75 per cent and 95 per cent,” said an official of a foreign-owned resort in Hokkaido.
“Like everyone else, we had hoped the ‘Go To’ campaign would help this year, but they suspended it before the season could even get going,” he said.
“We are fortunate that we have patient and understanding owners and we are just waiting the situation out, although a lot of the smaller, locally run places are finding it very difficult,” he said. “Some have made the decision to just not run at all this year and hope that next year makes up for it.”
Kjell Fornander, a Swedish national who owns a luxury ski lodge in Hokkaido, agreed that this winter had been “a disaster”.
“In a usual year, we have guests from all over the world – Dubai, Australia, Hong Kong, Scandinavia – but they cannot come this year and our revenue has simply disappeared,” he said.
“We had been pinning our hopes on ‘Go To Travel’, but that has been cancelled – and it’s such a pity because the snow is epic at the moment,” he said. “Now, we are hoping that once the vaccine is rolled out through the year and numbers go down, that people will come back again next year.
“The worry has to be if the pandemic starts a serious economic contraction in some of our key markets, such as China ,” he added.
Kamori Kanko operates hotels and ski facilities in the Hokkaido resort town of Rusutsu, with 800 rooms usually fully booked throughout the month of January every year, said Toshimune Sato, manager of the firm’s real estate sales.
“Our domestic market has been hit hard by the suspension of ‘Go To Travel’ and the state of emergency in major cities, but the loss of our customers from Australia has also hit us hard,” he admitted. “But our company has been in business for more than 60 years, we have faced many difficulties in the past and overcome them each time.
“And this time of crisis is obviously very tough, but we are taking every possible measure to make sure we are ready to go as soon as things get back to normal,” he said. “The snow is great – and all foreigners know just how good ‘Japow’ (Japanese powder snow) is.”
Yet operators and those who depend on northern Japan’s winter conditions for their livelihoods say they are optimistic.
“It’s too late for this season but if everyone is vaccinated over the coming months and the numbers start to come down, then I think next year could be fantastic,” said Daniel Mee. “There are countless frustrated winter sports fans who are stuck at home wishing they were on the slopes. They have saved their money this year and they are just itching to get back here.
“Right now, they are sitting on their sofas making plans,” he added. “Next year is going to be massive.”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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