Japan’s appeal as an ideal tourism destination, boasting fantastic food, stunning scenery and great shopping — all in a clean, safe and friendly environment — are some of the reasons why its visitor arrivals to the country continue to break new records. Last year, the number of visitors to Japan reached 31.19 million, up 8.7%, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, is increasingly charming visitors year-round, none more so than Hong Kong travellers. With its unspoilt scenery and world-class skiing resorts, the number of visitors to Hokkaido from Hong Kong increased almost three-fold in just a few years, from 73,000 in 2012 to 203,000 in 2017. Total tourist arrivals to the island have been growing even faster, from 790,000 to 2.79 million over the same period. By next year, the Government of Hokkaido aims to double that number to more than 5 million visitors.
“We are seeing huge interest in the number of people going to Hokkaido for travel and recreation, but also for business and investment,” said Asia & Africa Committee Chairman Behzad Mirzaei, who led a 30-member Chamber business delegation to the island from 3-7 June.
“Because of the strong growth, there is increasingly a shortage of accommodation, especially in the less developed areas like the east and central regions of the island. That is why we chose to visit Hokkaido, to get a first-hand perspective of how our members can tap into this huge potential.”
The Governor of Hokkaido, Naomichi Suzuki, a 38-year-old former mayor of Yubari City, hosted a welcome reception for the delegation and to brief them on the business potential on the island beyond the island’s capital city, Sapporo. Japan’s youngest Governor, who is admired for his enthusiasm and ability to get things done, told members that a key priority is to develop the island’s adventure tourism industry, in harmony with its surroundings.
“Adventure tourism consists of nature, culture and activity. We have all three of these in abundance. What we need is Hong Kong businesspeople’s expertise in developing and running world-class tourism facilities,” he said. “We look forward to working closely with HKGCC and Hong Kong businesses to help more people enjoy Hokkaido.”
Hidechika Koizumi, Director, Investment Facilitation Division at the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI), pointed out that even among the Japanese, Hokkaido is increasingly popular. “We need high-level accommodation to cater to Japanese and overseas visitors to Hokkaido’s undiscovered destinations. Within the food industry, we also need to establish partnerships with local authorities and Hong Kong businesses to help process and export our produce.”
While the number of hotels in central, south and north Hokkaido is approximately 2,119, there are only around 845 mostly small hotels on the east of the island. But quality is more important than quantity. Hideki Asano, Manager at Blue Waves Japan, which has built and operates a small number of luxury sustainable villas at Akaigawa Tomo Symbio Resort, said people are looking for unique experiences — and to be surrounded by nature, not by other tourists.
Hokkaido is particularly eager to promote adventure tourism, not only because it preserves the environment, but also because adventure tourists on average spend up to 2.5 times more than regular tourists.
“In addition, travel preferences are shifting from ‘material’ to ‘experiential’ such as adventure travel,” said Tsutomu Takahashi, Counsellor of the Hokkaido Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry. “In a survey we conducted, tourists from Asia and the West ranked nature and landscape, hot springs and eco-tourism among the top eight reasons why they visited Hokkaido. So these are the areas that we are going to focus on promoting.”
During the five-day mission, organized by HKGCC and JETRO, in collaboration with the Hokkaido Government and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan, the delegation visited Kushiro and Teshikaga on the east of the island, as well as Furano, Ashibetsu and Sunagawa, in the centre of Hokkaido.
“During our meetings with the Hokkaido Governor, Vice Mayor of Kushiro, and Mayors of Teshikaga and Furano, everyone had the common goal of doubling the number of tourists from Hong Kong visiting Hokkaido,” said Mirzaei. “They understand the challenges associated with increasing capacity and also meeting visitors’ expectations, and are exploring how technology, e-commerce and smart hotels can to improve efficiency, increase revenue and address labour shortages. This is where Hong Kong companies have a great deal of expertise.”
Hokkaido officials are confident they can reach their goals, as each area boasts unique attractions, including the rich indigenous Ainu culture, and some of the best farm and seafood in Japan.
Akira Nazuka, Vice Mayor of Kushiro City, explained that Akan Forest and Lake Akan, along with the ancient traditions of the Aniu people, give visitors a very different experience from the rest of Japan. The city’s tourism revitalization project aims to develop new resorts, camping facilities and activities to cater to adventure tourism. The area is also home to Lake Akan Ainu Theatre, which stages traditional and ancient ceremonial dances.
Teshikaga, a popular tourist destination 40 kilometres from Akan, now receives almost 1 million visitors a year, 10% of whom are from overseas. Key attractions in the area are Lake Mashu, which vies for the position of “clearest lake in the world,” Lake Kussyaro, hot springs, sand bathing in mineral rich volcanic sands, camping, fishing, canoeing, cycling and skiing in the winter.
To get a taste of adventure tourism for themselves, members donned protective gear and paddled out into Lake Mashu in canoes, before kayaking down the crystal clear waters of Kushiro River.
“This was one of the highlights of the trip for our members. Being at one with nature, the beauty of the surroundings, and the pristine environment were amazing. I can understand why more and more people want to visit the area,” said Mirzaei.
“We also had useful discussions with the Mayor of Teshikaga, Tetsuo Tokunaga, and local business people, who are eager to attract investors to develop facilities and activities for visitors, without spoiling the environment, which we applaud.”
As Hokkaido is a skier’s paradise, members visited three ski resorts currently looking for investors to buy and operate the resorts.
“The island’s skiing season runs from around December to mid-March, which means for the rest of the year you need to identify other revenue streams for these attractive resort sites,” said HKGCC’s Asia & Africa Vice Chairman Andrew Wells, who is also an Executive and Senior Corporate Consultant for property developer Lai Sun Development.
“The nominal price of the land is very low compared to Hong Kong, but labour and mobilization costs are high and there are also regulatory and tax issues. We do see the potential, but would need to seek more detailed proposals from project proponents before moving forward with actual investments.”
Furano, in central Hokkaido, is famed for its fruit and vegetables as well as dairy produce. Delegates visited food-processing plants, and enjoyed some of the produce at Tokachi Hills Farm, which operates a Michelin quality restaurant, before visiting Furano Winery. Since its establishment in 1972, its wines have become so popular that it is unable to meet domestic demand.
“Many of the producers of Hokkaido’s famous foods, such as wines, freeze-dried strawberries, cantaloupes, even potato chips, have huge demand from the Japan mainland. We hope that by experiencing some of these produce and visiting processing plants, HKGCC members can get some ideas of how they can tap into this bounty,” said Tomohiro Takashima, Director General, Invest Japan Department, JETRO, who accompanied members on the trip.
PC Yu, honorary mission leader and General Committee member said he was impressed by the variety of quality of food and beverages being sold locally, and would be interested in hosting promotions at his Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporiums around Hong Kong.
“I have discussed with JETRO how we can arrange a ‘Hokkaido Festival’ at some of our department stores to help promote Hokkaido’s foods as well as its tourism attractions to more Hong Kong people. This mission was really an eye-opening experience for myself and many members who previously thought they knew Japan very well,” he said.
With a population of just 5.4 million, around half of whom live in Sapporo, manpower — or lack of — will be a key factor in determining the scale of Hokkaido’s success in developing its tourism and food-processing industries. At the end of last year, the Japanese Government enacted a law to allow foreigners to work in the country and ease the labour shortage.
Nigel Collett, Vice Chairman of HKGCC’s Asia & Africa Committee, operates an employment company, and is encouraged by the move to allow more foreigners to work in Japan.
“The Japanese understand there is a need to import foreign workers as it is an ageing population, and, as is the case in other countries, people are no longer keen to pursue a career in tourism or manufacturing,” he said.
He stayed an extra day at the end of the mission to meet with a local hotel to discuss how his company could help them with their staffing needs.
“I was a very encouraging start. I believe it will take a year or two for us to confidently break into Japan’s manpower market, but the potential is definitely there,” he said.