Local businesses in Niseko worry over loss of revenue and investors
TORU TAKAHASHI, Nikkei staff writer
SAPPORO, Japan — Niseko, an area renowned for its ski resorts on the northern island of Hokkaido that draws foreign skiers from around the world, has been shaken up by nearby towns’ far-off plans to accept nuclear waste in exchange for generous government subsidies.
The towns of Suttsu and Kamoenai have both applied for preliminary feasibility surveys to be considered for a site that will store waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants. The cash-starved towns struggling with declining populations are poised to each pocket 2 billion yen ($19 million) promised by the government for taking part in the studies alone.
Although whole selection process takes 20 years, the applications have touched off an outpouring of opposition from locals as well as from across the country, including from Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki, who assailed the central government for “slapping the face with money.”
Niseko, which encompasses the area near Mount Yotei, often called the “Mount Fuji of Hokkaido,” was extremely popular with foreign tourists before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, the resort towns face one of their biggest trials.
In the previous fiscal year that ended March, foreign tourist numbers fell from a year ago, according to Niseko and Kutchan. While some of that can be attributed to the coronavirus, it also indicates a downward trend before the outbreak became a pandemic.
A total of 107,954 foreign tourists visited Niseko in fiscal 2019, down 20% from the previous year. Kutchan lost 22% of its foreign travelers, ending up at 118,170 guests.
Traffic peaked in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. Hotel rates surged in response to demand, causing some travelers to shy away due to sticker shock. The COVID-19 epidemic delivered a follow-up blow.
If the radioactive waste site surveys damage the regional reputation, the time needed to recover will likely double.
The broader Shiribeshi region that includes Niseko is also home to the Tomari nuclear power plant, operated by Hokkaido Electric Power. Ross Findlay, who founded the Niseko Adventure Centre, an outfit that played a pioneering role in drawing international tourists to Niseko, is not happy about the feasibility surveys.
While there has not been a palpable impact yet, there is no advantage to be gained from the surveys either, said Findlay.
The owner of a tourism business in Kutchan believes in local production and consumption, and uses seafood from Shiribeshi. But that may have to change.
“Foreign customers are sensitive,” said the owner. “If the nuclear waste issue gains prominence, it’ll become hard to use” locally made seafood.
Last month, five citizens groups presented the Hokkaido governor with a petition signed by 450,000 people opposing the feasibility survey for the two towns. The signatures were collected nationwide. The preliminary studies underway in the two towns are becoming an issue that could undermine tourism throughout Hokkaido.
Niseko drew over 1.75 million tourists in fiscal 2019 when including Japanese, an increase of 5%. Kutchan’s numbers fell 16% to 1.49 million that same year, but the town is experiencing a rush of hotel and condo openings.