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Japan ski resorts brace for harsh winter as local gov't steps up aid, visitor offers

A snowboarder is seen in this image provided by Hakuba Resort Development Co. Ski resort operators claim that outdoor winter sport activities don't present a high risk of coming into close contact with others.

NAGANO -- The winter sports season is almost upon us, but its popularity has waned compared to before, with visitors to central Japan's Nagano Prefecture, home to a number of ski resorts, on a downward trend. Worse still, this year has seen the industry pressed further by problems from the coronavirus. Amid the current troubles, how will the skiing industry and local governments overcome this season's challenges?

    September saw the announcement of this season's working policies from Hakuba Resort Development Co., which manages ski resorts Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field, Hakuba Happo-one Snow Resort and Tsugaike Mountain Resort in the popular Hakuba area in Nagano.

    In its report, the company indicated that while it considers skiing, snowboarding and other outdoor winter sports to make it difficult for participants to come into close contact with each other in closed-off, crowded spaces, it will disinfect gondolas after each use, stop people from separate groups using two-person ski lifts together, and require that when people ride 4-person ski lifts outside their own groups, they sit with one seat apart from each other. Inside its facilities, the company said it will run adequate ventilation, and disinfect each of its buildings at set times, among other measures.

    The Japan Funicular Transport Association (JFTA), a body made up of ski resort operators and others, also set out its guidelines in September. Among the measures the association is urging each of its member businesses to employ are limits on the number of gondola and ropeway passengers, setting spaces between passengers and carrying out disinfections at set times.

    From Sept. 15, Hakuba Resort Development also began selling tickets for this season and other products. But, because the possibility remains that ski resorts could be closed based on the state of infections, it has introduced a new system in which season-ticket customers will be able to receive refunds based on how long resorts were closed.

    Winter sports have thrived in Nagano Prefecture, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1998. Despite this, ski resort customer numbers are on a downward trend. According to data from the prefectural government, between November 2019 and May 2020, visitor numbers were at around 5.53 million, down some 927,000 from the year before. In addition to low snowfall from a warm winter delaying resort openings, the spread of the coronavirus from January 2020 saw foreign visitor numbers sink precipitously. Overall, customer totals have fallen to just a quarter of the 21.2 million visitors served at the industry's peak in 1992 and 1993.

    In a normal year, it appears that foreign customers make up just fewer than 20% of ski resort patrons, but this year the industry can barely rely on their business. At the September meeting of the Shinshu snow resort promotion committee, made up of prefectural and municipal governments, ski resort companies and others, the parties decided to forgo setting a target for visitor numbers this season. The reasoning behind the move was that the groups don't expect to realize the annual goal of 7 million visitors they've set themselves in recent years.

    Ski resorts say it looks set to be a hard winter. At a regular meeting of the Nagano Prefectural Assembly, a supplementary budget was proposed which will provide some 390 million yen in financial aid for half-price ski lift tickets -- which is aimed at the first 50,000 customers who reserve via an online booking site -- as well as subsidies for infection prevention measures and other expenses.

    An official at the prefectural government said, "Almost all ski resort operators are expecting this to be a tough season. We want to overcome this by seeking out new customers, and welcoming customers who make repeat visits across the season."

    (Japanese original by Kenji Noro, Regional News Department)

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