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Visitor traffic plunges in Kusatsu hot spring resort after deadly eruptions

Multiple craters, bottom, are seen on the surface of the Motoshirane peak in Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture, in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on Jan. 28, 2018. At top is the summit ropeway station. (Mainichi)

KUSATSU, Gunma -- The popular hot spring resort here has been hit by seemingly endless cancellations of hotel and inn bookings in the wake of the deadly eruptions on the Motoshirane peak of Mount Kusatsu-Shirane last week, despite the resort town being located outside the off-limits zone.

"At this time of the year, we normally get a flood of reservations for the spring holiday season, but what we've got up to now is fewer than half the regular number," lamented Yukio Kuroiwa, head of the Kusatsu Onsen Ryokan Kyodo Kumiai (Kusatsu hot spring resort inns cooperative union) at a news conference in the town of Kusatsu on Jan. 29.

According to the group, 5,499 bookings for a total of 20,275 visitors had been canceled as of 5 p.m. on Jan. 26 following the Jan. 23 eruptions, with the lost profits estimated to reach around 280 million yen. In response, the Kusatsu Municipal Government has decided to provide 20 million yen to the group as funds to combat harmful rumors. The town is also set to raise the retribution ratio under the so-called "hometown tax" donation program from the current 30 percent to 40 percent until the end of March when offering gift coupons that can be used at local hot spring inns and other facilities to donors from other municipalities.

In order to ease safety concerns among prospective visitors, the town office is also desperately publicizing the stepped-up monitoring systems for the Motoshirane peak by the Japan Meteorological Agency and other organizations. However, it appears difficult to recover visitor traffic in the area anytime soon, as seen in other areas that were hit by natural disasters in the past.

In the wake of the deadly eruption on Mount Ontake in September 2014, the upper half of the ski resort "Ontake 2240" in the village of Otaki, Nagano Prefecture, located on the side of the volcano, was kept off-limits and was only reopened to visitors in February 2015. Although local organizations have since held events and offered special accommodation programs to attract visitors, such efforts have yet to produce results. "Visitors are turning to other ski resorts and won't return here," lamented a representative of the village government's tourism office.

The Kusatsu Municipal Government and surrounding local bodies are scrambling to map out evacuation plans for potential eruptions. However, it is difficult to predict abrupt eruptions like the ones that struck on Jan. 23, and whether local bodies can formulate viable evacuation schemes remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, some municipalities have succeeded in recovering tourist traffic through efforts to enhance safety measures.

The town of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, saw a plunge in the number of visitors to 17.37 million in 2015 -- a record low since 1989 -- after the eruption alert for Mount Hakone was raised to level 2 in May that year. The area around Owakudani valley, known for rising volcanic fumes, was also cordoned off for about 15 months. The town office, however, subsequently introduced volcanic gas monitoring systems, carried out regular evacuation drills together with private-sector businesses and put together original manuals for hot spring hotels and inns to respond to possible volcanic eruptions. Thanks to these efforts as well as the lifting of off-limits regulations in 2016, the number of visitors to the area is expected to recover to pre-restriction levels of somewhere over 20 million in 2017.

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