Travel agencies vying for share of excitement around Hokkaido Shinkansen Line


Travel agencies are aiming for a slice of the excitement when the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line opens on March 26. It is the first time for Hokkaido to be connected to the shinkansen network.

The travel firms are justified in their enthusiasm: There was a travel boom after the March 2015 opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, which nearly doubled the number of travelers heading to the Hokuriku region. The line takes in the cities of Toyama and Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

By contrast, most travelers to Hokkaido take flights.

The Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, to be operated by Hokkaido Railway Co., or JR Hokkaido, will link Shin-Aomori Station in Aomori Prefecture and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in Hokuto, which adjoins Hakodate, a major city and tourist destination in Hokkaido.

The line will connect to the Tohoku Shinkansen Line of East Japan Railway Co., or JR East, at Shin-Aomori, enabling seamless shinkansen travel between Tokyo Station and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto.

The fastest train on the Hokkaido and Tohoku shinkansen lines will link Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto in four hours and two minutes.

The four-hour line is seen as a watershed for the choice of shinkansen over aircraft. However, the train will be cheaper: One-way travel between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations will cost ¥22,690 per adult, some ¥10,000 lower than the regular fares of major airlines for service between Haneda airport and Hakodate Airport.

As it will take only an hour or so to travel between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto by shinkansen, travel agencies have developed tours that cover Aomori Prefecture and Hakodate, a rare combination until now.

JTB Corp. and Hankyu Travel International Co. are offering package tours to Hirosaki Park in the city of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, the Kakunodate area in the city of Senboku in Akita Prefecture, and the Goryokaku fort in Hakodate, all popular spots for cherry blossom viewing.

Nippon Travel Agency Co. plans tours focusing on the fresh seafood of Hakodate and Aomori Prefecture.

As the launch of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line will extend the shinkansen network from Hokkaido to Kyushu, Hankyu Travel will offer tours from Hokkaido to Kagoshima Prefecture using the Hokkaido, Tohoku, Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines.

But some observers are concerned the fortunes of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line may not be as rosy as those of its Hokuriku cousin.

“A negative image has come to the fore,” as Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station is far from Hakodate city center, and the line’s extension to Sapporo is about 15 years away, said JTB Chairman Hiromi Tagawa, who also serves as chairman of the Japan Association of Travel Agents.

In addition, fares for the new line will be higher than those of other shinkansen lines, creating problems for travel agencies as they set about planning what products to offer.

As Hokkaido Shinkansen trains will use the Seikan Tunnel, which runs under the sea between Honshu and Hokkaido, travel between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto will be nearly 30 percent more expensive than for a similar trip between Tokyo and Hiroshima Station on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, despite the similar distance.

For this reason, JTB, for example, plans to set the prices of some Hokkaido package tours, including hotel charges, at levels lower than the round-trip fares of Hokkaido Shinkansen trains, in an effort to create an impression of affordability and to encourage use of the new line.