Back to the slopes

Japanese ski resorts, hit hard by the country’s long recession, are bouncing back. And private equity real estate investors are showing interest

Every weekend, Tokyo’s fashionable youth set off in their jeeps and 4x4s to the mountains for a spot of snowboarding. However, the appeal of the slopes to the overall Japanese population has been waning in recent years—some age groups have been put off by resorts that only seem to cater to the young, free and single.

The decline in popularity of ski slopes in general has not only occurred in Tokyo, but across Japan and has been exacerbated by the country’s long economic slump, which has hit everyone’s pocket. Much like the country’s golf courses, ski lodges were developed in large numbers during the 1980s and were subsequently hit hard by the nation’s decline. According to the Japan Ski Association, domestic skiers and snowboarders numbered seven million in 2005, half the number seen during the boom.

Just recently, though, the green shoots of economic recovery have become evident and moves are being made to attract more people back to the ailing slopes. Sure enough, private equity investors are following. Just before Christmas, Citigroup Principal Investments Japan acquired 12 ski resorts, reportedly for $21 million (€16 million) below book value, from Prince Hotels, a unit of Seibu. And last month, another four resorts were sold by the same group, including a slope in Hokkaido. Similar transactions have taken place in the US, where Starwood Capital and Fortress have both recently invested in ski resorts.

In Japan, ski resort owners have been adding amenities such as day care centers and family-oriented restaurants to attract people back to the slopes. At the same time, the Japanese government is making an effort to increase foreign tourism. Asians and Australians are aware that Japan offers perhaps the best snow in the entire Asia-Pacific region, averaging 45 meters in some areas such as Niseko, where visitor numbers have risen fivefold in recent years.

“Lots of people have been to the Alps or Colorado,” Neil Riley, who runs a company promoting skiing in the central Japanese resort town of Yuzawa, told the Associated Press. “But there’s now a lot of bragging rights to say you’ve been skiing in Japan.”