Niseko gears up for a post-COVID era
Amid the pandemic, inbound tourists have vanished from Hokkaido’s Niseko area, which has turned into an internationally popular resort. This is the first story in a series titled Niseko gears up for a post-COVID era, which examines how the local tourism industry, domestic and foreign developers and investors are preparing for the end of the pandemic.
*The original article was posted in Japanese on the Hokkaido Shimbun Press website ( https://www.hokkaido-np.co.jp/ ) in late October 2021.
Niseko gears up for a post-COVID era（４） Businesses fight for workers ahead of tourism recovery in Hokkaido’s Niseko
During the potato harvest season in September, Taiki Harada, 41, had trouble hiring workers to help him on his 100 hectares of farmland in and around the town of Kutchan in Hokkaido.
“There is no one to drive the harvesting machinery,” he lamented. “It was much easier last year.”
There were more interested applicants last year because many people lost their jobs during the pandemic, which dealt a heavy blow to the local tourism industry, including restaurants and hotels.
Many worked at farms via the Hokkaido government and local agricultural cooperatives. In fiscal 2020, which ended in March, 171 were looking for a job at local offices — of those, 122 were foreign nationals.
However, the situation has completely changed since April. Only 23 people were registered at the Hokkaido government through September, of which only seven were non-Japanese.
“Lots of people moved out to major cities like Sapporo and Tokyo since there are no stable jobs in the Niseko area,” said an official at the local branch of the Hokkaido government.
The Yotei Agricultural Cooperative Association also said that there are no people ready to work immediately during the harvest season.
The population of Kutchan dropped just before the pandemic began: from 17,007 at the end of January 2020 to 14,823 at the end of September. That’s a 13% drop, or 2,184 people. The outflow of foreign residents who worked at ski resorts is a major factor.
Tokyu Resorts & Stays Co., the operator of the region’s largest ski resort, has decided to limit the number of employees this winter to less than 60% of the usual number. The company also halted the operation of its cable car for tourists this summer.
“The pandemic prompted us to be more profitable” since it had cut costs, said Fumio Sato, general manager of the company. “We’ll do our best to get through this winter as well.”
With more people getting vaccinated, the government has come up with a plan to encourage vaccinated people to go out and about, which may boost demand for tourism.
“If that happens, every one of the staff, including the management, will help out running the place. I will do everything from driving buses to operating the lifts, too,” Sato said.
The combined population of the towns Kutchan and Niseko is around 20,000, which is not enough to provide the adequate labor force to run the resort.
Without a large number of workers from outside of the region — including foreign nationals — ski resorts and the rest of the area’s hospitality industry will not be able to operate at full capacity.
“When the pandemic gets under control, we will first be fighting for staff rather than customers,” asserted a manager of a resort run by a foreign company.
There are already signs of a labor shortage.
Since July, the monthly number of available jobs in the six towns and villages at the foot of Mount Yotei, in and around Niseko, has been higher than in the same month last year.
However, the problem is that the number of job-seekers in the region has been declining. The employer-to-applicant ratio in August was 1.20 — much higher than the 0.93 during the same month last year.
New job postings at the Kutchan branch of a local public employment office had been made by luxury foreign hotels. In addition to full-time job offers, some openings were for new posts seeking managers with monthly incomes of over ¥300,000.