Niseko hotels see reservations rising, but struggle to hire foreign staff

Hokkaido ski resorts feel labor pinch as Japan reopens borders

Nikkei -- Jun 12

With the Japanese government recently deciding to ease entry restrictions for overseas tourists, Chitose Airport near Sapporo is preparing to welcome visitors again. And Niseko, a major winter resort two and a half hours' drive west, is taking more reservations for the upcoming ski season.

All seems well, but there is one glaring weakness in the tourism business in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido: a shortage of foreign staff.

Niseko resort, which straddles the towns of Kutchan and Niseko, is a top destination in Hokkaido for affluent overseas tourists, and foreign staff help make their trips more pleasant by lowering the language barrier. Niseko offers high-end lodgings, some of which go for more than 100,000 yen ($740) a night. Foreign visitors made around 680,000 overnight stays in the two towns in fiscal 2018.

The Kutchan Tourism Association says 132 condominiums in the two towns had taken 1,349 reservations for the six-months between November 2022 and May 2023, as of May 23 this year, with foreigners accounting for 90% of the bookings. That is four times more than last season and just over 60% of the level seen three seasons before. The association attributes the rebound to a recovery in reservations from Australia and elsewhere.

The cap on daily arrivals to Japan has been raised to 20,000. Tourists from abroad will be limited to guided tours from 98 countries and territories for the time being, including the U.S. and China. The restrictions are due to be eased in phases.

More than 3 million overseas tourists visited Hokkaido in fiscal 2018, giving a boost to the regional economy. But overnight stays by overseas tourists in Kutchan dropped 95% year on year in fiscal 2020 to just 20,925 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local business are pinning their hopes on the resumption of inbound tourism.

However, hotel operators in the Niseko area are far from cheery. A personnel official at Miru Niseko, a hotel in Kutchan, says the hotel been searching for new employees, but applicants with language skills and other qualifications are hard to find.