WHILE there has been a noticeable drop-off in Australian visitors this year – caused by a strong yen and weak Aussie dollar – a more diverse array of international holidaymakers are finding their way to Niseko.
Australians really founded the current boom in Niseko, since they started arriving in large numbers over the past few years. However, local businesses and independent bodies are noting a shift in the tourism demographic. Australian visitor numbers have visibly decreased this season, deterred from returning to Niseko due to $1 AUD buying only around ¥60 for the much of the season so far.Contrasting these figures to those of last season (2007-08), $1 AUD bought ¥100 – or sometimes even more. However, balancing the drop in Australians this year is a rise in Hong Konger, Singaporean and other Asian and European tourists.
Fumio Sato is marketing and planning manager for Grand Hirafu, and media spokesman for the Free Passport Association (FPA), a body that encompasses all four resorts – Hirafu, Annupuri, Hanazono and Niseko Village. Sato-san said he had noticed a drop in overall visitor numbers this year, but said that more noticeable was holidaymakers’ spending habits. “This year, people are more likely to use the kitchen in their condominium than go out to a restaurant,” he said, adding that lift ticket sales for Hirafu in November and December this year were still quite similar to last season. Although Sato-san acknowledged decreased visitor numbers this year, he said he was positive about a busier middle season. He also said he noticed more international tourists, besides Australians, visiting Niseko than last season.
The Niseko Company’s general manager Steve McIntyre said his luxury property and rental management company’s Australian market was down around 25-30 per cent, adding that key markets, including Singapore and Hong Kong, were up about 5-10 per cent. Occupancy rates were about the same in spite of the economic crisis, due to The Niseko Company increasing its number of properties this year, said Mr McIntyre. “The biggest rise for us this year has been Singapore, but we have got a few guests from Britain, France and Russia, and expats from Indonesia, Thailand, Korea and China,” he said. He predicted an earlier slow down of the tourism year in 2009 due to the early Chinese New Year.
Mr McIntyre stressed the importance of Niseko tapping into summer tourism potential. “In 2008, the number of people who stayed in our properties doubled when compared to the 2007 season,” he said. “This is not just a winter playground, there is plenty more on offer in the warmer months.”
Daniel Welk, general manager of the Hilton Niseko Village, said the statistics for this year noted a more diverse upmarket tourism crowd. For December 2008, he said occupancy was Japan (65%), Hong Kong (15%), Singapore (6%), Russia (4%), Australia (2%), and the remainder other parts of Asia. January bookings were similar to December, although fewer Singaporeans and slightly more Australians.
Brett from Wild Bill’s, one of Hirafu’s busiest bars, said that while business from cash-aware tourists had dwindled this year, locals and seasonal workers were still throwing cash over the bar. “Locals usually disappear from before Christmas until March, and that peak season is usually time for the tourists to party,” he said. “But this year, it’s been locals out partying all season – they are the main crowd.” In spite of the current climate, Brett said he and Bill’s ‘weren’t going anywhere’, and were in ‘it for the long haul’. “We’re in a lull – everyone is in a lull,” he said. “Did we get caught with our pants down? I think everyone did. It humbled us a little. But it won’t stop snowing this century in Niseko, though, so people will still come for the powder, regardless of what the economy is doing.”