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（５） Planned scenery regulation hampers development on main street of Hokkaido's Kutchan
Despite the pandemic, real estate prices in the Niseko area have been soaring, and a raft of investors from busy cities, such as Sapporo and Tokyo, have visited to check out the area for themselves.
But seeing a number of aged buildings in front of Kutchan Station, the visitors seemed surprised, asking: “Is this really the place expected to become a premier location after the shinkansen line is extended?”
■ Uncertain landscape plan
The area may not appear busy, but the reality is that domestic and foreign investors have already poured in money, causing land prices to soar tenfold in the past five years. However, they haven’t really started developing the area.
“Many investors want to open hotels and shops, but with details of the plan for the area around the station still fuzzy, they believe it’s too risky to start the development just yet,” said a local real estate company official.
Investors are wondering if it’s better to start the construction or to profit from a resale — which is why much of the purchased real estate remains yet to be developed.
What they are watching is what the town of Kutchan plans to do with the streets leading up to Kutchan Station. Tighter regulations are being considered to maintain views of the picturesque Mount Yotei, dubbed Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji.
If the town wants to maintain view of the mountain, located on the southeast side of the station, then it’s likely there will be construction regulations imposed on the south end, making it difficult to build taller structures.
The town office is planning to hold sessions between local residents and developers, hoping to persuade them to maintain the view. But if the plan holds, it will be difficult for landowners to build hotels, for instance.
“It will affect the land prices, too,” one landowner said.
The scenery regulation will also affect the development of the street that leads to Kutchan Station. The north side of the street, where construction wouldn’t affect the view of Mount Yotei, is unlikely to have any restrictions. Therefore, local real estate developers are concerned that land prices will differ significantly on the northern and southern sides.
Town officials are also trying to strike a balance between local residents and landowners.
“If the town is developed in a way that has a great view, the area will become more attractive, which will lead to the rise in land prices,” a town official said.
■ New large complex
The fate of the possible gap between the north and south will also likely be affected by a plan jointly managed by the town and local chamber of commerce to create a large complex to attract people around the area.
The town is planning to purchase a 7,000-square-meter plot of land that the local farm cooperative owns on the southeast side of the station for the complex. It will feature a facility to promote outdoor tourism activities, such as skiing and cycling. It will also have restaurants and other shops as well as an indoor playground, a club for children and facilities for other afterschool activities.
But longtime residents are ambivalent about how changes to the area near Kutchan Station are being discussed behind the scenes.
“I’ll be happy to see more people coming to the area with the new shopping complex,” said Tadashi Funayama, 69, who has been running a dry cleaning store in the area for the past 50 years. “But it’s no longer a town where locals have a say in it. It used to be a town we developed ourselves, though.”
In the past, this was a bustling place crowded with many individual stores and people. As the shinkansen is scheduled to be extended in fiscal 2030, development in the city is about to get rolling.