When Hotel Meizanso, in the Miya hot spring district of Gamagori, Aichi Prefecture, welcomed a cohort of junior high school students from Nagoya at the end of September, it was the first time in months a large party of guests had checked in.
The number of bookings had plunged in the spring due to the spread of COVID-19, and the hotel had been closed for two-and-a-half months.
In normal times, Gamagori is rarely chosen as a destination for school trips. But after local governments asked people to refrain from traveling across prefectural borders, many schools decided to change the destinations for their trips to places nearby.
Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the main bulk of the customers of Hotel Meizanso — one of the largest hotels in the city, with 95 rooms — had been companies using its facilities for conferences, training sessions and recreational trips for employees.
Watching the 160 students climb out of four buses and file into the hotel, Kazuhiro Sugiyama, 60, its president, said, “This really symbolizes the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Many students in Aichi Prefecture have been heading to the Miya district on school trips since October. In November, local junior high school students from Gamagori stayed at Tatsuki, a hotel located within the city’s Nishiura hot spring district.
After Hotel Meizanso started attracting school trip bookings, it began using a large hall that can accommodate hundreds of people as a dining room for students, placing chairs so that they don’t sit face-to-face during meals.
Even before accepting the bookings the hotel was involved in lengthy discussions with travel agencies and schools, and suggested various safety measures.
That said, even now having large groups staying at the hotel is still exceptional. Most of the guests have been families and other individuals who used the government’s Go To Travel discount program.
In order to maintain adequate measures to prevent infections, the hotel has been limiting the number of guests to 80% of its capacity.
With another wave of infections now underway, almost no reservations have been made for year-end parties and New Year gatherings — hitting the hotel’s sales hard.
Not only Hotel Meizanso, but many other hotels and inns in Gamagori had been depending heavily on groups of guests. While they have recently been attracting more families and couples, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the tourism industry in the region to think of rebuilding its strategy from scratch.
In other prefectures, there have been cases in which large hotels stopped focusing on group tours and tried to raise sales by encouraging individual customers to spend more.
But Sugiyama isn’t discouraged. “We believe the pandemic will definitely settle down some day and large parties of guests will come back,” he said, awaiting the availability of vaccines that might herald his guests’ return. “I think we have to endure for now.”
Fujimiso, another inn in Gamagori that had been largely dependent on groups of Chinese tourists, didn’t have the financial strength to quickly shift its strategy.
Its bankruptcy in February, as foreign tourists canceled their trips to Japan due to the COVID-19 outbreak, made headlines nationwide as it became the first business to go under due to the virus.
“I cried my eyes out, thinking about having to shut down the inn that I had inherited from the previous president,” said the 32-year-old president, who asked not to be named, back in February.
Business had been tough even before the pandemic, with checks bouncing under the former president’s stewardship. After a change of leadership the inn had started doing better, attracting bookings from foreign tourists.
It signed a contract with a travel agency that coordinates Chinese tours and reserves rooms for them. Unlike domestic tourists, who mostly stay on weekends, Chinese tourists filled up the rooms on weekdays as well. Before long, the inn’s customers were almost all Chinese.
It was then that the pandemic hit. The Chinese government banned all group travel, to avoid spreading the virus, at the end of January just before the Chinese New Year — the busiest time of year for those catering to Chinese tourists.
“Because we only had group tours from China, it was easy to assume that we would have zero customers,” the president of the hotel said at the time.
With no prospect of the travel restrictions being eased, the inn wasn’t able to afford the fixed costs to stay afloat even if it suspended its business operations for the time being.
“We won’t be able to withstand it,” he conceded.
According to Gamagori city, the number of people who stayed overnight was around 620,000 in 2014, down from 1.45 million in 1989. But the figure went up last year, to 800,000, with nearly 20% of tourists being foreign visitors.
The spike in customers from overseas, however, didn’t mean Gamagori had suddenly become a tourist attraction.
Many Chinese tourists take the so-called Golden Route, visiting the popular tourism spots of Tokyo and Osaka by bus. With tight regulations on the distance a bus driver can drive a day, travel agencies needed a place to stay en route.
Many hotels suffering from dwindling domestic tourism have leaped at the opportunity that presents, with many buses arriving at night and leaving in the morning without allowing tourists time to look around the city.
Some tourism industry insiders called inbound tourists a “shot in the arm” for those inns, and many of the budget inns that cater to Chinese tourists are failing to attract domestic travelers now even with the government’s Go To Travel campaign.
The government is still aiming to attract 60 million foreign tourists in 2030, but the pandemic has shown that overdependence on inbound tourism can backfire.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original articles were published Dec. 16 and 17.
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