The thriving Hokkaido ski resort of Niseko is considered an anomaly among the many rural communities in Japan facing a slow demise from the shrinking and graying population.
But that was not always the case, says Australian Ross Findlay, a pioneer of the area’s outdoor recreation business who first moved to Niseko in the early 1990s when it was still a nondescript, sleepy town whose only attraction was skiing.
Niseko’s transformation over the following decades into one of the nation’s most sought-after outdoor resorts offers lessons for struggling municipalities on the powers of tourism, Findlay said.
And a good cup of coffee can go a long way in clearing up the demographic gloom.
“I call it the café latte kijun (standard),” Findlay, who founded the Niseko Adventure Centre in 1995, told The Japan Times during an interview last month.
“For most people around the world now, they like to go and sit down in a café somewhere and have a nice coffee. But if you go to the countryside in Japan, it doesn’t exist,” he said.
“It’s just small things you have to start from. The thing with the cafes is that if you can get a person to sit still for half an hour, they will spend money. A lot of country areas don’t get that.”
Findlay is credited with introducing summer outdoor activities like rafting, kayaking and canyoning in Hokkaido, helping offset seasonal falls in tourism and establishing Niseko as a year-round travel destination.
As Niseko’s de-facto spokesman — he has been selected as one of the nation’s 100 “Charisma Ambassadors of Tourism” — the 53-year-old travels around Japan on speaking engagements, often advising prefectural and other governments looking for clues on how to emulate Niseko’s success.
Drawn to its powder snow and hot springs, hordes of tourists from Asia, Australia, Europe and elsewhere visit Niseko and the neighboring town of Kutchan, which has been chosen to host the G-20 tourism minister’s meeting next year.
Findlay said the “foreign invasion” took off in earnest in the early 2000s when Australians, enchanted by the quality of Niseko’s snow and slopes, began spreading the word back home, attracting visitors en masse and turning Niseko into one of the world’s top ski resorts.
Land prices have continued to soar, and luxury hotels and condominiums are being developed to accommodate growing number of guests. English has become the primary language in many restaurants and shops, giving the area an international feel.
The booming economy has also attracted both local and expat workers, many who go on to become residents. The population of Niseko stood at 5,076 as of the end of April, of which 281 were foreign nationals. That compares with 4,771 for the same period in 2013, when there were 93 non-Japanese.
While the number of foreign residents fluctuates substantially between skiing season and the rest of the year, when work becomes scarcer, the growth has been drastic. Kutchan, a town with a population of over 15,000, saw its foreign population hit a new record of 1,648 in January, compared with around 470 in December 2008.
“There’s still a tremendous interest in Niseko. Especially in terms of foreign companies and foreign people wanting to invest in Niseko,” Findlay said. “It’s a brand name now, and if you ask tourists where they know in Japan they will say Tokyo, Kyoto and Niseko.”
That’s not the case, however, in the hundreds of rural towns and villages across the nation plagued by sweeping demographic change.
By 2040, about half of Japan’s municipalities, or 896 towns and cities, will face the prospect of extinction as the number of women of reproductive age drops below sustainable levels, according to an oft-cited projection by a study group led by former Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda.
And while the nation’s population peaked over a decade ago, the number of tourists has been surging.
The nation attracted a record 28.69 million tourists in 2017, up 19.3 percent from the previous year and the sixth consecutive yearly increase. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to increase that to 40 million by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and to 60 million by 2030.
Alarmed by the perils facing many rural towns and villages, Abe has touted regional revitalization as one of his many policy priorities, but Findlay said there’s a limit to what prefectural and municipal governments can do.
“They can do a park, but anything to do with fun is really hard for government to do because it’s not something you can measure. It’s hard to explain to the taxpayers,” he said.
Findlay emphasized the need to have “product” — distinct selling points localities can use to lure visitors, be it ski slopes or historical and cultural attractions.
“There are some fantastic places in Honshu. And the customers now that are coming to Japan, they start in Kyoto, but then they go to the next place, and next time they go further in and they just go further and further in every time they come,” he said.
“It’s about changing the way of thinking. If you want to revitalize things and move ahead and improve an area, and you have young people coming in, you need to think: What do we need? Do we need cafes? Do we need a nice surf break? What do we need?”
Tourism also must be year-round to be financially sustainable, Findlay said.
“You can’t just have tourism for one month because it’s too hard to set up. If you get 10,000 people coming in for one month, where are you going to find the staff to do it? If you’re going to have foreign companies investing in hotels that can only survive on one month, it’s not going to work. It has got to be year-round.”
Born in Melbourne, Findlay lived in Sydney and later worked as a ski instructor in the United States and Europe before coming to Japan in 1989, where he spent two seasons at famed alpinist Yuichiro Miura’s ski school before moving to Niseko. Findlay and his Japanese wife have four boys and live in Kutchan.
Findlay said he understands the constraints on the public sector when it comes to investing in tourism, but said money needs to be spent with discretion and on areas with potential.
“The hardest thing for the Japanese government is, they’re always trying to be fair overall. But you can’t keep throwing money, which they do, at places that are going bad because its tax money down the drain,” he said.
“I think one of the steps you have to take is to look at places that are moving ahead. You ought to look at those places and say, okay, so how can we help those places? Of course, others may die, but I think that’s natural progression.”