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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Hokkaido Tourism Boom on Track

Mar. 25, 2016

Officials are hoping that Japan's new Hokkaido Shinkansen bullet train will help draw more foreign tourists -- particularly those who are Muslim -- to the northern Japanese island.

The new train, which began service on Saturday, will provide a high-speed connection from the main island of Honshu, racing through the world's longest undersea tunnel.

Last year, more than 1.5 million foreign tourists visited Hokkaido. Officials are aiming to double that by 2020, with a boost from the new train line.

The plan is to attract more people from outside East Asia. Most visitors to Hokkaido currently come from these countries and regions, with only 18% from other areas.

Hakodate is one of the most popular tourist spots in Hokkaido, and the new train service has spurred efforts to attract Muslim tourists.

A low-cost airline began service between Hokkaido and Malaysia last year. The number of Muslim visitors to Hokkaido has grown. The new bullet train route is expected to draw even more.

One essential attraction is offering foods acceptable to Muslims.

One restaurant in downtown Hakodate offers sausages and beer, a local specialty, but forbidden for Muslims.

Islam prohibits the consumption of pork and alcohol, so the restaurant has been developing Muslim-friendly halal foods. Soy sauce containing alcohol is also not allowed. It has also created a special seasoning.

"This is soy sauce jelly with squid and sea urchins from Hakodate. It uses halal-style soy sauce and sugar, instead of mirin sweet sake, for sweetening," says one of the staff members.

The restaurant attracted the attention of Malaysian media. It was featured on a TV program highlighting Hokkaido's attractions from a Muslim point of view.

"Food is amazing, it's wonderful. These people are making effort to prepare halal food options for Muslims," says Hakim Amir, a Malaysian TV Producer. "Muslim people will know and will appreciate it."

"The bullet train will also bring foreign tourists and we need to offer Halal foods so that Muslims don't have to worry," says Yoshinori Kawauchi, a chef at the restaurant. "I think we have to do this to boost Hakodate as well."

Among the many overseas tourists were visitors from the Middle East. They all work for a major travel agency in the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE has been achieving steady economic growth on the back of its abundant oil resources. Many UAE citizens are said to travel for more than a month, spending about $22,000 per person, every year.

The group was invited by the Hokkaido District Transport Bureau. The officials highlighted the charms of Hokkaido in wintertime, a world away from the desert region of the Middle East.

The UAE visitors were delighted with the snow and ice. They took many photos and quickly posted them online.

"People see it and they enjoy it. They like it a lot," said one participant on the tour.

They spent 5 days in Hokkaido and seemed to be heading home, but they went on to Kyoto.

The officials arranged the visit, aiming to impress their Middle Eastern guests with Japan's famous ancient capital. The visitors enjoyed the culture and history, a great contrast to the natural wonders of Hokkaido.

"I can highly recommend both places. Definitely, I think one of the things that Japan is known for its bullet train, actually. So when I go back, they will ask 'did you use bullet train?' So I think tourist will like to use it," said Ali A.A. Rasheed, one of the travelers on the tour.

The party traveled by air this time, but the Hokkaido officials are considering using the new bullet train in the future. They'll be able to travel from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and tour around Hokkaido.

From there, they can fly to western Japan to visit Kyoto, then fly home from an international airport nearby.

The officials are preparing more tours that include Kyoto, to attract wealthy visitors from the Middle East.

"We aim to use the name value of Kyoto to make Hokkaido recognized worldwide. And then, we plan to attract visitors to tours that combine Tokyo, Hokkaido and Kyoto or elsewhere," says Takashi Yamazaki, an official with the Hokkaido District Transport Bureau.

Professor Yasuhiro Watanabe, a tourism expert from Obirin University, joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: So will offering Halal foods help attract Muslim tourists?

Watanabe: Definitely, I think perhaps more than attraction, because for Muslim tourists, halal environments such as offering halal foods or offering prayer times or prayer places -- these are essential for their travel. So if a destination is looking for a large influx of Muslim tourists, offering this halal environment is a must. A similar situation was seen back in the 1980s or 1990s with Japanese outbound tourists. In those years, many Japanese tourists started traveling abroad, and such destinations like Hawaii or Thailand, restaurants there started offering such things as "oshibori" or hot towel, and soy sauce. These services I think made the Japanese tourists feel very at home, and I think they had a very good impression of the destination.

Shibuya: Do you think overseas tourists will be drawn to the Hokkaido Shinkansen itself?

Watanabe: Oh yes, of course. Shinkansen is a modern mode of transport. But also now it is a very attractive tourist attraction in Japan. We can see that in the wording. Many foreign tourists call the bullet train "Shinkansen," not "bullet train." They call it the Japanese name, just like "kimono" or "sashimi." This shows I think that it's already become a Japanese tourist attraction. More than that, Shinkansen are easy to use. They have English signage, and simple rules and the trains are very clean. So in that sense, Shinkansen is a major attraction. But also, Shinkansen is a very good source of news. Extension of the Shinkansen will become news for the destination, so Hokkaido can definitely use the extension of the Shinkansen for tourism promotion.

Beppu: Seeing Hokkaido on the other hand from a global perspective, there were people that we saw in the story that appreciated the winter season and the ice and the snow. But talking about this kind of nature, there are places like northern Italy, Switzerland, or Austria. Ow do you think Hokkaido can compete with these other global rivals, if I may?

Watanabe: I don't think Hokkaido has to worry about this competition, because as we saw last year, more than 20 million foreign people visited Japan. That shows that Japan, in the world travel market, has a big position as a destination. Japan is a country of rich culture, a long history, and of course modern technology. So a winter snow destination like Hokkaido is a winter destination in Japan, with its history and culture. But we must not forget that even under this situation, Hokkaido as a destination is not as well known as, for example, Tokyo or Kyoto, or perhaps Hiroshima. So it needs more fame or it needs more popularity to have more of an influx of tourists. So again, in this sense I think the Shinkansen's extension will play a big role in tourism promotion for Hokkaido.