• Kyodo, Jiji

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The annual Sapporo Snow Festival, one of the country’s biggest winter events held in Hokkaido around February, will be canceled for the first time since its inception in 1950 amid a surge in novel coronavirus infections, its organizers said Monday.

The festival, which usually features large snow and ice statues in the city center, will instead focus on disseminating online historical information about the event as well as the city’s winter charms. The boulevard currently decorated with Christmas lights will be lit up for an extended period of time, according to the organizers.

“It’s a shame, but it’s an unavoidable (decision) in light of the situation,” they said.

The celebrated event, which normally sees around 2 million domestic and overseas visitors every year, generates approximately ¥65 billion ($625 million).

It often features large snow sculptures, around 15 meters tall, modeled after famous characters or foreign architectural landmarks carved by members of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force and others.

Although the festival was held this year from Feb. 4 to 11 attendance plunged by around 710,000 compared with last year to 2.02 million in the wake of bans imposed by the Chinese government on group travel overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Sapporo government officials, videos of past festivals will be shown on the event’s official website as well as on electronic billboards in the city. The committee is also considering broadcasting videos of the sculpting process for the snow and ice sculptures.

Sapporo has seen occurrences of infection clusters mainly in the Susukino entertainment district since late October.

The cancellation reflected concerns that the festival may “promote the movements of many people in a short period,” a Sapporo official said.

In June this year, the committee said that next year’s event would be held on a smaller scale than usual, canceling the production of big sculptures.

Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto told a news conference last week that “it is difficult to host it in a way that draws spectators to a venue.”

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