Japan’s Golf Tourism Market could Give Winter Resorts Summer Appeal

International Real Estate

Japan Properties

25 Sep, 2019 –

RUSUTSU, Japan — As a Japanese couple teed off on a sweltering summer morning here in Rusutsu, a mountainous village in northern Japan, construction workers were building a new luxury condominium complex overlooking the fairways and ski slopes in the distance. When it opens in December 2020, the 10-story complex, the Vale Rusutsu, will have 156 units at prices from $656,050 for single bedrooms to about $5.2 million for elaborate penthouses. That’s an eye-popping amount for Hokkaido, Japan’s sparsely populated northernmost main island, but the developer, Kamori Kanko, is banking on a growing crop of investors, as well as ski and golf enthusiasts, from Asia to make the $131 million project profitable. So far, it has sold 83 units, the company said.

“We have one of the largest golf courses in Japan, with mild summer temperatures averaging about 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit),” said Toshimune Suto, a real estate sales manager at Kamori Kanko. Its Rusutsu Resort was designed as an all-season playground near the slopes of Mount Yotei, a 6,225-foot volcano dominating this part of Hokkaido, about 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, from Tokyo.

In addition to 37 ski runs with more than 40 feet, or 12 meters, of snowfall per season, the resort has an amusement park, pools, rafting, hot air balloons and four 18-hole golf courses, including one designed by Masashi Ozaki, known as Jumbo, one of Japan’s most famous golfers. Kamori Kanko began in the 1950s as the operator of a zoo. After acquiring the Rusutsu property in 1981, it continued to add facilities and develop the surrounding hills. In 1993, it built a hotel tower, now the Westin Rusutsu, and earlier this year it opened a Japanese-style onsen hot spring spa with sweeping views of the valley. When the adjacent Vale Rusutsu is finished, the resort will have a capacity of 3,634 beds.

Although Kamori Kanko owns most of the land in this part of the valley, others are vying for a piece of the local action, since large investments have gone into Niseko, a nearby ski resort. Riverhill Growth, a Hong Kong development company, has acquired a plot abutting the resort’s Izumikawa golf course where it is building 10 four-bedroom, 3,200- to 4,300-square-foot, or 300- to 400-square-meter, chalets. The units, which will have big decks for barbecuing, heated patios and cedar cladding, will be priced at more than $2.5 million and will be maintained and rented out by an outside company.

“Holidaymakers from Asia come here and fall in love with the place and start looking at real estate,” said Anthony Hand, the managing director of developer Riverhill Growth. “Having a house on a golf course,’’ he added, “means buyers should be able to get rental revenue from it in summer as well as the skiing in winter.” Foreign golfers, though, can run into language barriers and bias. Last year, Kasumigaseki Country Club near Tokyo relented to pressure to admit women as full members after it was selected as a 2020 Olympics venue.

“There are still too many impediments for foreign golfers to find it easy to play golf at many courses in Japan, but it will have to change,” said Fred Varcoe, a Tokyo-area journalist who writes about the game. Kamori Kanko, which at one time operated ski resorts in Colorado and California, withstood Japan’s economic downturn in the 1990s. But that wasn’t true for many of Japan’s golf course operators. Developers flush with cash built courses throughout Japan in the early 1990s, but about 200 have closed over the past couple decades. Some have been converted to solar energy farms. While some have tried to remain private clubs, others have opened to the public.

According to the Japan Golf Courses Employers Association, there were 2,257 golf courses in Japan in 2017, down from a peak of 2,460 in 2002. About 6.7 million people played golf in Japan in 2018, down from 14.8 million in 1992, according to a Japan Productivity Center survey of 3,000 Japanese aged 15 to 79. Many of the players are in their 60s and 70s, according to the center, a reflection of Japan’s rapidly aging population. But Japan was still the No. 3 golfing country in the world in terms of facilities, after the United States and Canada, according to The R&A, a governing body for the sport. It has many high-quality courses, including some that rank among the best in the world.

In its 2018 list of the world’s 100 best courses, Golf Digest included four in Japan: Naruo and Hirono golf clubs in Hyogo Prefecture, Kasumigaseki Country Club’s East Course in Saitama Prefecture, and Kawana Hotel’s Fuji Course in Shizuoka Prefecture. Golf in Japan can also be relatively inexpensive: a round of 18 holes, lunch and a cart can often cost less than $94. A few new courses have opened over the last 15 years. In December 2016, the private Tokyo Classic Golf, an 18-hole, 7,200-yard course designed by Jack Nicklaus, was inaugurated in Chiba City east of Tokyo.

Japan has found new inspiration in rising pros like 20-year-old Hinako Shibuno, a rookie on the L.P.G.A. of Japan Tour, who won the Women’s British Open earlier this year, kindling hopes that she might rise as high as former top-ranked Ai Miyazato. In addition to tournaments on the Japan Golf Tour, the country will host Olympic golf at the Tokyo Games in 2020. Some course operators are trying to ride a wave of tourism and investment from overseas while luring golfers from East Asia, Europe and North America.

Japan received a record 30 million inbound tourist visits last year, a jump from 8.6 million in 2010. Most of the tourists are from other Asian countries, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Half the players at Rusutsu Resort are from South Korea, which has numerous flights to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, a 90-minute drive from Rusutsu. “Koreans are fanatical when it comes to golf,” said Panch Ratnavale, the director of Niseko Village, a ski and golf resort 30 minutes northwest of Rusutsu by car. “They can do 36 holes every day. Their priorities are different. If you want to talk about maniacs, I’ve never seen anyone more passionate than Koreans.” Niseko Village, which is owned by YTL Hotels of Malaysia, has two golf courses, one of them designed by Arnold Palmer. Between the two, YTL is building a 50-room Ritz-Carlton Reserve on the slopes of its Niseko Village ski hill.

The Ritz will bring total beds at Niseko Village, which also has other accommodations including ski-in, ski-out chalets, to about 1,500. While YTL runs beach resorts and hotels in Europe, East Asia and Australia, Niseko is its only golf resort, and it intends to use the Ritz to target the growing Asian golf trade. On the other side of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, one of Japan’s most popular ski destinations, the operator of the 18-hole Hanazono Golf has renovated its clubhouse, adding a Mediterranean-style restaurant. The operator, Nihon Harmony Resorts, hopes to lure golfers from overseas, including those staying at the affiliated Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, an eight-story, 600-bed hotel and condo complex that’s scheduled for completion this winter. The Park Hyatt is at the foot of the Hanazono Niseko ski hill, near Hanazono Golf.

“Niseko is well known as a winter resort, but we’re trying to push its summer appeal as well,” said the general manager, Yasuo Kato. Course operators in Hokkaido are not alone in looking overseas: In recent years, industry groups and government agencies have begun organizing seminars on golf tourism. “Golf tourism is still in its infancy in Japan, despite the huge influx of tourists,” Mr. Varcoe said. “The time will come when golf courses in Japan will need to tap into this market and then you might see a big change in attitude.”

(Source – “The New York Times“, Pic – Golf style=”color: #333333;”> / “Chris Urbanowicz“)

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