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Rise in foreign tourist ski deaths, accidents puts pressure on Hokkaido resort industry

A snowboarder is seen boarding off-piste in Minami Ward, Sapporo, on April 14, 2019. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

SAPPORO -- From mid-January through to February, a series of accidents on snowy peaks not set up as regular runs have killed a number of foreign skiers in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.

Accidents are trending upward, particularly in areas outside ski resorts and other locations with a lot of backcountry skiing, the term for when people ski off of prescribed courses. With many backcountry skiers going off-property from set routes, resort operators have become unable to turn a blind eye to the development.

But precisely because the areas where the accidents occur are technically out of bounds, there are no clearly defined rules on how to respond to them, and those in the skiing industry are continuing to search for ways to prevent more people from getting hurt.

According to the Hokkaido Prefectural Police's regional policy planning division, during the winter mountain seasons (November to March each year) from 2010 until Feb. 13 2020, there had been 303 accidents, with close to 80% of them involving backcountry skiers. The proportion of those involved who are foreign nationals has been on the rise since around 2014, making up about half of the 327 people in the incidents.

In Europe and the United States, where skiing is popular and has a long history, many ski resorts clearly indicate which parts of the nearby terrain are on the course, and which aren't. There is also a long-held culture of people skiing freely at their own risk.

But in Japan, backcountry skiing has a relatively short history, and most ski resorts primarily manage courses where safety is assured. Some courses even have sections in them which are forbidden from entry.

To try to prevent more accidents at ski resorts, in 2013 the "Zenkoku Ski Anzen Kyogikai" ("all-Japan ski safety council"), known as Safety-Snow, amended its Safety Snow Criteria. In the changes, it states that because many ski venues have complex layouts, it is essential for resorts to have on-site maps clearly delineating which parts of the area are managed ski slopes.

There are signs and roped-off areas used to indicate which parts of an area visitors should not enter, but it's not possible to completely stop people from going into them. There has also been a rise in the of number of backcountry skiers who, unlike those who go on mountain-climbing-plus-skiing trips, thoughtlessly step over boundary ropes at ski resorts to enter off-course areas without the proper equipment.

Although the resorts are not being blamed for the accidents, these sometimes-deadly mishaps are causing headaches for the skiing industry. Additionally, a rising number of cases of people following backcountry skiers without realizing they're taking a path outside course boundaries has made the need to formulate a response more pressing.

Hokkaido's ski resorts are increasingly making efforts such as setting up special exits at the borders of managed skiing areas, and reductions in the number of mountain routes to ski down. These are intended to make it easier to predict where people are when they get lost in the mountains.

At Hokkaido's Mt. Niseko Annupuri, an area straddling the towns of Niseko and Kutchan which boasts five ski resorts and is highly popular with foreigners, experts and government officials worked together in 2001 to draw up the "Niseko Rules" to prevent accidents.

Gates leading to off-course areas were also set up at 11 locations on the mountain, and depending on the condition of the snow, they can be closed to prevent accidents before they occur.

At the Furano Ski Resort in the Hokkaido town of Furano, six "access points" around the mountain's summit have been established for backcountry skiers to pass through at any time. Similar to mountain climbing trails, signs in English and Japanese warn people to be vigilant in a number of ways, including asking them to submit climbing registration forms, and by encouraging visitors to ensure they have the correct equipment and enough funds to pay for potential emergency help. The scheme is fundamentally based on self-responsibility and independent decision-making.

For many ski resorts, their prevention measures are still very much in a trial and error phase. Action has been slow in part because the Hokkaido Regional Forest Office and the Hokkaido Prefectural Government both don't have legally binding provisions in place against skiing in areas outside ski resorts, including in national parks.

The head of Safety-Snow said, "Due to various company policies, financial conditions and other issues among ski resorts, there is no coherent strategy on safety management. To put together measures ensuring people's safety, help from the government is probably also required."

(Japanese original by Yui Takahashi, Hokkaido News Department)

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