【Column】Climate change and sustainable tourism in the Shiribeshi area

Sep. 6
Written by Carolus Praet; Professor of International Marketing at Otaru University of Commerce from the Netherlands. He has worked in Otaru for 23 years.

In the past years, the towns of Niseko and Kutchan which are home to the world-renowned NISEKO winter sport resort, have experienced a rush of foreign investment in high-end condominiums and hotels. These investments are betting on a solid, sustained demand from wealthy inbound and domestic customers and a constant and reliable supply of Niseko’s famed “powder snow”.

However, the combination of pandemics, shifting perceptions of air travel as contributing to global warming, and extreme weather phenomena as a result of climate change make it difficult for Niseko hospitality businesses to put all their eggs in the winter sport basket.

Extreme weather phenomena include this year’s torrential rains in many parts of Kyushu and Honshu, an unusually prolonged and intense heat wave in Hokkaido, and the relatively warm weather and recent record-low snowfall (and lack of powder snow) in the 2015-16, and 2019-20 winter seasons. Climatologists point out that total snowfall will decrease because of global warming and that in the future we will see extreme winters with abundant snow alternated by winters with very little snow. This combination of uncontrollable weather phenomena may make the assumptions underlying the business and economic models of resort investors and operators untenable, unviable and unsustainable.

This means that NISEKO investors and resort operators need to take into account the impact of environmental factors on their businesses and adapt their business models accordingly. Adapting business models involves targeting more diversified customer segments and making Niseko less reliant on the winter season by transforming it into an all-season resort. Some upscale hotels in NISEKO have started doing this by -temporarily- switching away from their main target of inbound winter sport enthusiasts towards wealthy Japanese retirees and business customers who wish to escape summer heat of the Kanto and Kansai regions.

For NISEKO to become a more attractive all-season resort it is vital to tap into the tourism resources across the Shiribeshi area. Cooperation with local governments, tourism boards and business operators across Shiribeshi will become vital not only for attracting enough customers during the entire year and reducing the risk of betting all one’s money on the winter season ‘horse’, but also for providing enough and diverse activities that will make the area an attractive option for long-stay visitors. Examples of these include a wide variety of wine, whisky, culinary, art, historical, amusement and natural landscape resources available in the towns and villages of Yoichi, Niki, Rusutsu, Makkari, Iwanai, Shakotan, and Otaru which nicely complement the current and primarily sportive outdoor activities available in Niseko and Kutchan. These complementary resources are especially attractive for long-stay domestic and international visitors, such as wealthy retirees looking to escape the hot and humid weather in other parts of Japan and Asia.

Integration of tourism resources across Shiribeshi will make tourism not only more sustainable and economically viable for all stakeholders in the area, but also is perhaps the only way to cope with the effects of global climate change.