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17:39 22 February 2017

Japan's southernmost ski resort facing shutdown amid drop in visitors

By Saki Tokunaga
MIYAZAKI, Japan, Feb. 22, Kyodo

Gokase Highland Ski & Snowboard, known as Japan's southernmost ski resort, is on the verge of shutting down as it has been struggling to attract enough visitors amid declines in the number of skiers and snowboarders in the country.

The Miyazaki Prefecture town of Gokase funding the local resort has announced that business termination is "inevitable" unless the number of visitors surpasses the profitable line of 40,000 this season that ends on March 5.

The figure stood at 26,034 as of Monday, the resort said.

"This is a rare place that provides an occasion for children to play in snow in the southern Kyushu region," which rarely sees snowfall, said Kesahiro Akiyama, assistant manager of the resort. "We want people to visit as a way to help us out."

The Gokase resort with three lifts and two ski courses has been known for its often buzz-making advertisements, including a poster of a teary woman pleading with people to visit and a more eyebrow-raising TV commercial focusing on a woman's cleavage while making references to the resort's fluffy natural snow.

Visitor numbers peaked in fiscal 1994 at some 92,000 but have frequently fallen below the 40,000 mark since fiscal 2009. In fiscal 2015, the number stood at 32,000, partly due to a lack of real snow prompting business suspension.

With the local town already having covered over 200 million yen in losses by the public-private venture operating the resort, its president Shumpei Harada said he considers this season is the "last chance" to turn the business around.

The skiing and snowboarding population in Japan has steadily declined since its peak of 18 million in 1998, although the rate of decline has slowed in recent years, and the population has hovered at the 7 million level since 2012, according to the government's white paper on leisure.

Some people who enjoyed skiing as youngsters are apparently returning to the sport accompanying their children, and an increase in the number of foreign skiers and snowboarders visiting the country has underpinned some businesses.

After East Japan Railway Co. expanded areas covered by its unlimited ride pass for foreigners from 2015, Gala Yuzawa, a ski resort in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, which has direct shinkansen bullet train access from Tokyo, said the percentage of foreign visitors increased to 12 percent from a single digit.

"We've become popular among people from places like Taiwan and Thailand who have never seen snow," said an official of the resort.

Still, winter sport resort businesses overall have been struggling and even those making profits are still far from booming.

Sales of lifts and gondola rides have remained low at about 30 percent of the levels in the first half of the 1990s, according to an annual railway report by the transport ministry.

The number of ski resorts in Nagano Prefecture, which stood at 110 in 1996, has fallen to 94 in 2015, according to the prefecture.

"Smaller ski resorts that cannot invest in artificial snow makers seem to be struggling as we have seen a shortage of snow for some years," said the prefecture's tourism official.

Among recent shutdowns, a ski resort in Miyazu, Kyoto Prefecture, closed in fiscal 2015, while another resort in Katashina, Gunma Prefecture, decided to close at the end of this season.

==Kyodo

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