The town of Biei in central Hokkaido used to be deserted during the winter, but lately it’s been attracting many foreign tourists with attractions that have made it a popular cold-weather destination.
Sightseers have long headed to Biei in summer to view its beautiful landscapes and enjoy its local specialties. But as the municipality hosts no large ski slopes, the number of tourists traditionally declines sharply during the winter season.
However, that trend has begun to turn around as the town government and local tourist board work to draw more visitors to the region in winter, and they will continue their efforts to further raise the number of tourists next season.
On Feb. 11, a group including many Chinese and Korean tourists enjoyed what Biei has to offer. They visited “Mild Seven Hill,” named for its famous appearance promoting Mild Seven cigarettes in their heyday, and a Biei Tourism Association official snapped a photo for one family as they posed at the iconic scene.
That family was participating in a bus tour organized by the tourism association for the first time to allow tourists to visit the town’s renowned hills during winter. Two-thirds of the 37 tourists were non-Japanese.
At snow-covered Hokusei no Oka Observatory Park, a surprise was in store for the tourists: boards were provided for them to slide down the hillside on, and the unexpected experience proved a big hit, with the adult day-trippers frolicking in the snow like children.
In a separate effort, the Biei government and partners started illuminating the town’s famous "Blue Pond" in winter last year for the first time in a bid to narrow the gap in tourist numbers between summer and winter. It worked, pulling in 15,800 people during the three winter months alone.
Starting this winter, the tourism association offered a bus tour of the Shirahige no Taki waterfall and the Blue Pond, both of which are in the Shirogane onsen hot spring area, on Saturdays.
A total of 207 people joined the program that was held seven times in December and January, with visitors from overseas accounting for nearly half of all the participants. Many of them dined at restaurants in the town or visited spa facilities in Shirogane after the bus tour.
Toshihiro Tomita, head of the tourism association, took credit for the event that he said “led to a rise in consumption in the town.”
It’s thanks to these efforts that the number of people visiting Biei in winter has been on the rise.
Although those who visit the town between October and March only accounted for less than 20 percent of all the annual visitors to the region until fiscal 2008, the ratio has gradually increased.
The number of tourists for the October-March period for fiscal 2014, when the lighting up of the Blue Pond started, rose by 43 percent from the same period of the previous year to more than 500,000 for the first time, while the number of visitors for the other months increased only 13 percent that year.
As a result, the tourist numbers for the October-March period accounted for 29 percent of all the visitors in fiscal 2014.
Meanwhile, the total annual number of foreign tourists who stayed in the town topped 19,000 in fiscal 2014, the largest figure since counts became available in fiscal 2002, and some new problems have been reported in connection with the rise.
For example, at one time, local residents had to wait two to three hours for a taxi, because many sightseers from abroad used the available cabs to tour surrounding hills or visit the Shirogane hot spring resort in winter.
The Biei tourism association organized the bus tours partly because of the hike in overseas visitors.
In the meantime, if the area relies too heavily on tourists from outside Japan, visitor numbers could sharply decline in association with exchange-rate fluctuations and diplomatic issues.
In addition, although the number of day-trippers has drastically increased, the number of visitors to Biei who stay in the town has not risen significantly. The issue of how to urge more tourists to stay in the town remains a challenge.
“It is a good thing that an increasing number of overseas people visit the town, but it is still important to have Japanese tourists come to the area,” said Tomita. “Based on the programs we offered this winter, we will consider providing a wider variety of tours, such as one targeting photography buffs.”