Sapporo struggles to increase international recognition as winter resort

Sapporo's Susukino district, the largest entertainment district in northern Japan
Sapporo Bankei ski area

One of the reasons why Sapporo is aiming to host the 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympics is to establish itself as a world-class urban snow resort.

The city hopes to be better recognized globally so that it can welcome more tourists from abroad and boost its economy.

Currently, foreign tourists are attracted to world-famous ski destinations such as Niseko, some 100 kilometers away from Sapporo, and tend to pass through Sapporo, tourism industry officials say.

The city still has a long way to go to become an internationally renowned tourist attraction, as challenges remain, including the shortage of luxury hotels.

Luxurious ski resorts

“If you stay in Sapporo, you can not only ski but also visit tourist spots and enjoy food in urban surroundings,” Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto said in an interview with the Hokkaido Shimbun on Feb. 14, describing his dream of using the Olympic bid as an opportunity to promote the city worldwide as an urban resort.

There are six skiing areas in the city, including Sapporo Bankei and Sapporo Teine, that are between 20 minutes and an hour away by car from the city center.

About 80% of visitors to the ski areas are residents of Sapporo, and the ski areas’ popularity among foreign tourists remains low.

The city plans to draw more visitors — especially wealthy people, who stay for a long period of time — by issuing a pass that allows holders to visit all six of the city’s skiing areas and packages winter sports with tourist activities such as the Sapporo Snow Festival and sampling local food.

It hopes to increase the number of tourists in winter, which is low compared with summer, but it will not be easy.

“In China, the skiing population is rising mainly among the rich thanks to the Olympics, and they long for Hokkaido with its high-quality snow. But we don’t have the impression that Sapporo is a ski resort,” says Huang Wanlong, 61, who runs a ski slope in Zhangjiakou in China’s Hebei province and previously worked for a Japanese firm.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he spent a month every winter at a ski resort in the town of Rusutsu in western Hokkaido, bringing wealthy tourists from China.

“Rich Chinese people like to stay in spacious luxurious rooms. Sapporo doesn’t have many hotels with such rooms, and ski areas in the city are small as well,” Huang said. “If they were to travel all the way to Hokkaido, they would continue to choose Niseko and Rusutsu.”

Lack of attraction

In Niseko, construction of accommodation facilities such as high-class condominiums has continued even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of hotel beds in the area has been increasing by around 1,000 to 2,000 every year in recent years.

A number of the hotel rooms cost from several hundred thousand yen to more than ¥1 million per night.

Hokkaido Railway Co. has announced a plan to open a Marriott International Inc. top-brand hotel in Sapporo in view of the Olympic bid, but it is uncertain whether the city can attract brisk investments, as Niseko has.

Even if Sapporo succeeds in building facilities fit for wealthy tourists, there is no guarantee that the city can draw in such people.

A tourism industry official in Hokkaido well-versed in tourist trends in Western countries said, “Wealthy people are looking for something extraordinary, away from daily lives. They will choose Niseko, not Sapporo. Compared with other locations such as Kyoto, Sapporo is not particularly attractive as a city either.”

The Hokkaido Shinkansen line is expected to be extended to Sapporo by the spring of 2031, but most of the passengers coming from Tokyo will likely be getting off midway at the town of Kutchan, near Niseko.

“A tourist route might be created for people to shop in Tokyo, do sightseeing in Kyoto and engage in outdoor activities in Niseko,” the official said.

Individual travelers

Sapporo is facing mounting challenges in attracting not only wealthy visitors but also other tourists.

Jeong Jin-wook, 51, president of Shikinotabi Co., a travel agency in Kitahiroshima, Hokkaido, that serves tourists from South Korea and Thailand, said Sapporo does not have a good environment for individual travelers.

Jeong points to the need to have traffic signs and food menus in multiple languages, as well as offering better access to ski areas.

“While buses would be convenient for foreign people to use, there are few buses going directly to ski areas in the suburbs of Sapporo,” Jeong said. “It would be difficult for them to rent a car and drive to the areas, with road signs available only in Japanese and the hurdles of driving on winter roads.

“As a result, many of them end up taking part in group tours, which means the number of individual travelers will stop growing if things are left as they are.”

The Sapporo Municipal Government estimates that the economic impact of hosting the Games will be ¥350 billion for Sapporo alone and ¥450 billion for all of Hokkaido.

Akimoto expects further economic impacts, saying the estimates “only include the direct impact, such as accommodation during the Games, and do not take into account the potential increase in skiers after the event.”

However, Sapporo citizens are yet to be shown a clear blueprint for how those imagined gains will become a reality.


Sapporo City