World-class skiing; Japan’s largest national park; even ice hotels. For those who are looking to experience Japan outside of Tokyo or Kyoto, Hokkaido remains a prime destination. Indeed, as the last major island to be settled by the Japanese, Hokkaido arguably stands out from the rest of the nation in everything from topography to daily life.
It seems the secret is out of the bag. Taking advantage of a weak yen, travelers from Southeast Asia are flying en masse to the island of Hokkaido. However, this influx has proved to be a double-edged sword. While the tourist boom is certainly bringing money into local economies, it is also straining transportation resources–perhaps nowhere more than at New Chitose Airport.
Located about 45 kilometers from the city of Sapporo, New Chitose Airport is the largest airport in Hokkaido and the third busiest in Japan. As the main hub for foreign travelers passing into Hokkaido, the airport has recently been on the front lines of the tourist boom.
First, let’s take a look at the numbers. Below are the results of a report by the city of New Chitose detailing the number of travelers making use of international air routes at New Chitose Airport.
Looking at the numbers over this period of time, we see that use of international air routes has increased to 1.5 times its previous levels. Another report from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism breaks down the increase in travelers by country.
Seoul: 388,810 travelers (22.2% increase)
Hong Kong: 221,388 travelers (10.5% increase)
Taipei: 462,617 travelers (6% increase)
Bangkok: 178,745 travelers (46.7% increase)
Mainland China/Shanghai: 75,022 travelers (85.3% increase)
Which raises the question: why the dramatic rise in Asian tourists? As mentioned earlier, a weak yen is merely the icing on the cake to what is already an enticing tourist destination. With no shortage of snow and places to enjoy it, including the famous Niseko ski resort, Hokkaido offers a marked change for people from parts of Asia where snow is nonexistent.
Some other factors might also be at play in fueling the rise in tourism. For one, direct flights began running between Bangkok and New Chitose Aiport in late 2012. For another, in recent years Japan has offered visa exemptions to short-term travelers from Thailand and four other Southeast Asian nations.
Many may well be celebrating the ensuing influx of tourists. In the case of Niseko, investment by non-Japanese in local ski areas and condominiums has fueled collective economic growth. Furthermore, operators of tour buses are finding themselves booked to capacity.
▼ Niseko ski area
Yet New Chitose Airport offers a glimpse at the other side of the tourist boom. With too few departure gates to serve all international travelers, long lines have become a common sight, as have delays. From April to November of last year, 386 flights were delayed by more than 30 minutes, an increase of 65 percent.
The dramatic rise in delays may have an unexpected cause: passengers carrying oversized baggage. It appears that many foreign visitors return home with several cardboard boxes of omiyage, or souvenirs. Seeing as the list of tax exempt items was expanded in October of 2014, now is certainly a good time to stock up on gifts.
Regarding this shopping craze, one store employee at New Chitose Airport said: “Visitors from China and Taiwan generally buy gifts in large quantities, so we consider them very valued customers.”
And well they might be. However, these visitors with oversized baggage often end up being sent to a limited number of service counters, causing a rush in processing and subsequent delays.
▼ We’ve all been here before
Even the aforementioned tour bus drivers seem to be feeling the strain, despite thriving business. A driver for M’s MESSE, a Sapporo-based tour service, was quoted as saying: “Even if we can mobilize management to double as drivers, it still won’t be enough [to keep up with demand].”
Seeing as New Chitose Aiport is aiming for 3 million international travelers in 2020 (for comparison, there were 1,540,000 in 2014), some big changes will have to be made to deal with the increased traffic. Some say the answer lies in more equipment and staff, while others argue that the airport should both begin providing 24-hour service and expand the number of landing areas for planes arriving from China.
Whatever the solution, there seems to be no sign of letting up in the flow of foreign travelers to Hokkaido.