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Travel & Leisure

Japan's luxury cruises return to Hokkaido after COVID-19 hiatus

Tourist hot spots welcome ships with stricter pandemic protocols

The Asuka II docks at Kanazawa Port in Ishikawa Prefecture on April 2. The luxury ship will sail to Hokkaido in May. (Photo by Takumi Sasaki)

HAKODATE, Japan -- After being held at bay over a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, luxury cruise ships will make a highly anticipated return to Japan's northern island of Hokkaido in May.

The Asuka II will become the first luxury liner to stop in Hokkaido since November 2019 when it docks at the port of Hakodate on May 2. Local tourist-driven businesses hit hard by travel restrictions are already buzzing with excitement.

"Cruise passengers tend to be big shoppers, so I couldn't be happier," said a representative for the co-op overseeing Hakodate's famed morning market. As one of the city's most popular tourist attractions, the market is home to hundreds of food stalls and souvenir shops.

Cruise ships have been a key driver for Hokkaido's economy, bringing sought-after customers for the island's small retailers, tourist attractions and transportation providers. In fiscal 2018, 18 ships alone docking in the port of Kushiro, also in Hokkaido, injected an economic boost worth 320 million yen ($2.9 million), according to calculations by the city of Kushiro and the Kushiro Public University of Economics.

Larger liners have received a particularly warm welcome, since they can bring more than 1,000 potential customers to an area in one go.

But cruise ships in Japan and around the world became hotbeds for the coronavirus last year at the pandemic's outset. The Diamond Princess, operated by Princess Cruises, drew notoriety as it was quarantined for weeks off the coast of Yokohama with thousands of passengers and crew on board.

Japan later halted all cruises in April, and only resumed domestic trips in November. No cruise ships, from either abroad or elsewhere in Japan, docked in Hokkaido in 2020.

Passengers play bingo on the Nippon Maru. Cruise operators have made efforts to maintain social distancing aboard their ships.

With international cruises not expected to mount a comeback anytime soon, Hokkaido has emerged as a leading destination available to Japan's cruise operators. The Asuka II is scheduled to travel to Hokkaido in 15 of its over 60 planned cruises through the fall.

Mitsui O.S.K. Passenger Line's Nippon Maru is scheduled to dock at the city of Noboribetsu in May and at Hakodate in August. The Pacific Venus from Japan Cruise Line will stop at Hakodate, Kushiro and Shiraoi as part of a trans-Japanese cruise in May and June.

In 2019, cruise ships docked a total of 130 times at 16 Hokkaido ports, according to the Association for the Promotion of Cruise Ships to Hokkaido. Hakodate accounted for 47 stops, making it the most popular destination, followed by Otaru with 29 and Kushiro with 15.

These cities are especially hopeful for an economic spur as cruises make a return. But a coronavirus cluster, like the one aboard the Diamond Princess, could waylay their plans, and they are taking every step to prevent an outbreak at their ports.

Last month, Hakodate launched a joint council to address the reception of cruise ships at its port. It included representatives from the health care industry, firefighters and the police.

The council established conditions for cruise ships to dock at Hakodate's port, such as prompt communication of any sick or infected passengers, as well as the protocols for dealing with a large cluster of COVID-19 cases on board, including those that address the costs.

Work to improve the port of Hakodate continued last June, despite a nationwide suspension of cruises. (Photo by Masamitsu Ito)

If Hakodate experiences a sharp outbreak within the city, cruise ships could be asked not to dock. The scheduled arrival and departure times of cruise ships are displayed online to better inform the public and encourage them to be responsive to developments.

Otaru, which had been approached for 23 cruise ship landings starting in August, plans to set up a similar joint council. Kushiro will delegate that role to an already existing port security committee.

NYK Cruises, which operates the Asuka II, will have passengers take PCR tests screening for COVID-19 prior to boarding. If someone takes ill during the cruise, everyone on the vessel will be tested for the coronavirus.

If the onboard testing turns up a positive result, the voyage will be aborted and the ship turned back. The Asuka II seeks to be viewed as doing everything it can to prioritize disease prevention both inside the ship and at the ports.

The ports of Hakodate and Otaru anticipate a rebound of inbound cruise traffic once the pandemic eases. In anticipation, both cities plan to expand the size of their piers and build passenger terminals capable of accommodating larger vessels.

NYK Cruises has scheduled the Asuka II for international cruises next year. The company will also build a ship with upgraded infection-control measures. For the ports of Hokkaido, the next few months appear poised to chart a course for how successful the next few years of COVID-era tourism could be.

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