Tourism in Northern Territories near Hokkaido on the Rise, Attracting More Visitors from Russia and China

Russia’s Transforming of the Northern Territories into Tourist Destinations

The islands off Hokkaido in Japan’s northern territories are becoming popular tourist destinations, thanks to the efforts of Russia, which effectively controls the four islands. With the construction of accommodations and other facilities, an increasing number of visitors, including those from China, are being drawn to the area. The strengthening ties between China and Russia, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have contributed to the surge in tourism.

The COVID-19 pandemic and deteriorating relations between Japan and Russia led to the suspension of a visa-free exchange program between residents of the two countries four years ago. However, this has not stopped major changes from occurring on the Russian-held islands. The House of Friendship on Kunashiri Island, which once served as the center of visa-free exchange, has now been transformed into a commercial venture by a Russian public corporation.

The Japanese government had provided over ¥400 million for the construction of the House of Friendship, completed in 1999, to accommodate Japanese visitors to the islands. However, a recent telephone interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun revealed that the facility has been repurposed, with a sports bar being opened on the premises late last year.

The Kuril Islands, including the northern territories, received more than 50,000 tourists in 2022, a 150% increase from 2020, according to Russia’s Far East and Arctic Development Corporation. The area’s natural environment, featuring volcanoes and lakes, has been a major draw for visitors. The number of tourists from Russia has also increased as the Russian government continues to develop the Far East.

Aurora Airlines, with the support of Russian government subsidies, began passenger flight services between Vladivostok and Etorofu Island earlier this month. This has led to the construction of more hotels and hot spring facilities on the island. The increase in Chinese tourists has also been notable, with a Korean restaurant owner expecting to see more Chinese group tours in the future.

A tour guide on Kunashiri Island reported that three new accommodation facilities were built this year alone, and the number of Chinese guests has been on the rise. Yoji Kameyama, a former diplomat who worked at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow, believes that the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin will further advance development in the northern territories to support regional development and gain domestic support.

Despite the changes, concerns have been raised regarding the House of Friendship, which was originally intended for humanitarian aid and exchange. Kameyama stated that while the facility is currently being used for other purposes, it would become unusable if left unattended. The Foreign Ministry has expressed its concerns to the Russian side over the operation of passenger flight services to Etorofu Island, claiming that the Russian government was involved in the launch of the service.

As developments in the northern territories continue to unfold, both Japan and Russia will need to navigate the evolving landscape and its impact on tourism and international relations. With the increasing number of visitors and the transformation of facilities on the islands, the implications for the future are multifaceted and present a complex set of challenges and opportunities for both countries.

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