Becalmed Hokkaido prays for G8 wind

Communities across prefecture hope benefits reach beyond Lake Toya


TOYAKO, Hokkaido — Lined with traditional merchant homes, wholesalers and other historical buildings dating to the 17th century, Inishie (Antiquity) Street stretches 1.1 km from north to south in the Japan Sea coastal town of Esashi in Hiyama, southwestern Hokkaido.

When Toshinori Kameya, director general of the Hiyama Municipal Office, learned Hokkaido will host the Group of Eight summit from July 7 to 9, he thought his town, about a three-hour drive from the summit venue, shouldn’t miss out on the chance to promote itself.

“We want to use this opportunity to attract (both foreign and domestic) tourists in the region,” Kameya said.

Hiyama enjoyed prosperity in the Edo Period and Meiji Era, when trade thrived in Esashi, known for its herring fishery. But times have changed.

The area’s economy has stagnated, its population of about 47,000 is aging and the agricultural and fishery sectors are down. Another key industry — construction — was dealt a blow by the cutbacks in rural public works projects in line with the structural reforms of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“We want to perform the ‘Esashi Oiwake’ folk ballad for the state banquet (at the G8 summit) to let the world know about our cultural heritage,” Kameya said, referring to a folk song for local fishermen that dates back some 200 years.

Hiyama is one of many Hokkaido communities banking on the summit to boost their economies at a time when the prefecture is struggling to share in the country’s economic growth. The summit is expected to bring an economic windfall of about ¥38 billion to local businesses.

The Windsor Hotel Toya, which sits on a hill in Toyako, was chosen as the summit venue, so the hot-springs town and neighboring areas hope the event will give them an opportunity to promote their regional products and culture to an international audience.

“Foreign tourists in Toyako are mainly from Taiwan, South Korea and China. We hardly see visitors from Europe and the United States,” Mayor Yoshio Nagasaki said.

“We have to use this opportunity as the host town of the summit to attract people from Western countries,” he said, noting efforts are afoot to put up signs in English.

The Windsor Hotel, where the G8 leaders will stay, boasts sweeping views of Lake Toya on one side and the Pacific Ocean across the town of Toyoura on the other. Other inns in Toyako will accommodate the other summit delegates.

Toyoura Mayor Kunio Kudo is not only pushing the central government to supply the summit with its pork and strawberries — the town’s specialties — but also to promote the local scenery.

“The view from the Windsor Hotel is not only about the view of Lake Toya. Customers on the ocean side can view the ocean spreading behind our town and a fantastic sunset from their rooms,” Kudo said, adding he is urging the government to consider alternating the rooms of the leaders between the two sides.

The Hokkaido Toyako Summit Preparation Council, a public-private entity, and the government are organizing trips for foreign journalists to promote tourism in the prefecture.

A tour organized in mid-December took reporters and editors from the U.S., Thailand, Russia, Taiwan and Britain to Hakodate, Toyako, Niseko — a ski resort popular with Australians — as well as Otaru and Sapporo.

The reporters got a hearty welcome everywhere they went and enjoyed snowy landscapes, fantastic night views in Hakodate, seafood and other local specialties.

Jermsiri Luangsupporn, an editor of Sudsapda, a biweekly women’s magazine in Thailand, said she thinks readers of her magazine will be interested in Hokkaido because the climate, food and nature are quite different from back home.

“There’s no snow in Thailand and there are a lot of interesting things to see here,” she said.

Efforts to make it easier for foreign tourists to travel in Hokkaido are also under way, including planned smoother immigration procedures, a training program for volunteer guides and more tourist information offices.

The central government and locals hope Hokkaido will follow in the footsteps of Okinawa, which hosted the 2000 G8 summit and saw an increase in tourists in the following years.

In 2006, Okinawa drew some 5.64 million travelers from outside the prefecture, up 24.6 percent from 2000.

Although Okinawa has seen a decline in foreign tourists due in part to a reduction in regular flights and other factors, including the past Asian outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, domestic tourists jumped 30 percent during the six-year period.

According to the prefectural government, 49.09 million travelers came to Hokkaido in fiscal 2006, of which 590,000 were non-Japanese. With the summit, Hokkaido hopes to boost the total to 65 million in fiscal 2010, including 1 million foreigners.

But Yukiko Araki, a section chief of the transport ministry’s tourism economy and international affairs division, said the Hokkaido and Okinawa G8 factors differ.

“Okinawa started its campaign to win the G8 summit two years before the meeting and had plenty of time to prepare, while Hokkaido decided to bid for the summit only last March, leaving it with limited time to get ready under tight fiscal conditions,” she said.

In addition, Araki said Hokkaido, whose total area is equivalent to the size of Austria, is too big to regard as a single tourist destination.

“Sightseeing areas are scattered over a large area in Hokkaido, so it is difficult to bring each region together to work in unison,” she said.

Some people in Hokkaido also believe that only a handful of hotels and inns, particularly the Windsor, will profit from the summit while businesses in other cities will suffer amid tightened security.

But Kousaku Kato of the summit’s preparation council stressed the importance of local-level promotion, even if not as a unified front.

“Many cities, towns and villages take pride in their specialties and culture, but they are not good at selling themselves because they never had a chance to consider this,” Kato said.

“With the summit, the locals will have a chance to interact with people they’ve never met before and be inspired,” he said. “Let us change our mentality with the summit.”