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Japan's Beppu onsen area turns to 'esports tourism' to boost local economy

Plumes of steam are seen rising from hot springs in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. (Mainichi/Junko Adachi)

BEPPU, Oita -- A group in the southwest Japan prefecture of Oita has been trying to invigorate famous Beppu Onsen hot springs through esports events, in which players compete via video games.

    Oita Esports Union, based in the city of Oita, has been working on promoting esports, which have become very popular around the world. Group chairperson Koken Nishimura, 42, commented, "We would like to show a new form of tourism called 'esports tourism.'"

    Nishimura first became interested in esports after watching a video of an international competition that was held overseas. Watching a large crowd of fans in a stadium cheer on professional players, Nishimura saw esports' potential as an entertainment event and thought the sport might help energize Oita Prefecture. He eventually went on to launch his group in August 2016.

    For a while after the union's founding, Nishimura hosted gaming and other related events, but realized that those alone would not promote what was unique to the prefecture. So, he came up with the idea of associating the sport with hot springs -- the prefecture's largest source of tourism. After numerous visits to the Beppu Municipal Government office, he gained the city's cooperation to hold events in the hot spring area. Nishimura recalled, "Beppu has hosted various events. They eagerly welcomed my idea 'as long as esports would help boost the local community.'"

    The first esports event, "Beppu Onsen Lan," was held at the Beppu International Tourism Port in March 2019. During the two-day event, gaming enthusiasts brought their own consoles to compete and professional gamers showed esports' appeal to children. Among some 150 participants were some from the Kanto region in east Japan, such as Chiba Prefecture. Nishimura realized that attracting people for esports tournaments could help vitalize the local economy as the numbers of guests at accommodation facilities and customers at eateries increased.

    Due to the pandemic, however, it has become difficult to organize large-scale events that attract people from other prefectures. Though Nishimura's group held an esports event at Kijima Kogen Hotel in Beppu in September 2020, it was for one day only, and participants were limited to residents of Oita Prefecture.

    "Originally, we sought to bring in people from other prefectures to increase the number of guests staying overnight, but we also wanted to avoid causing trouble by spreading infections," Nishimura said. He continues to seek ways to host events to attract people amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    "It's important to hold contests that bring people to Beppu Onsen, instead of carrying them out online," Nishimura said. "We want to host a world-class esports event in Oita Prefecture, which is aiming to become a globally recognized hot springs city."

    (Japanese original by Shusaku Sugimoto, Sports Project Department)

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