The Shirahone Onsen (hot spring) in Japan. Photo: Cyril Ruoso / Biofoto / AFP

Hot springs, justifiably, are a major tourism resource for Japan. The 27,000 hot springs dotted around the country generated US$11.8 billion in revenue in 2013, representing more than one-fifth of the $50 billion global hot-springs market.

Japanese hot springs were set for a further boom as analyses noted that the rapid growth in global “wellness tourism” would provide the industry with an additional boost in the coming years.

Certainly, as the number of foreign tourist arrivals in Japan jumped from 3.3 million in 1995 to 31.9 million in 2019, the country’s hot springs have also seen a proportional rise in the number of foreign visitors.

That was, of course, before Covid-19 struck. To say that the Japanese tourism market has been derailed is an understatement.

After the country closed its borders to foreign visitors and residents alike to contain the spread of the epidemic, Japan is set to lose $1.9 billion and face declines amounting to 80% in overall tourist traffic.

The “Go To Travel” campaign, the Japanese government’s latest effort to revive domestic tourism through subsidies for travelers, has faced concerns over its potential hastening of the virus’ spread, and the last-minute exclusion of Tokyo, the country’s wealthiest and most populous prefecture, from the program.

Hot springs are expected to face a disproportionate decline as Covid-19 lays waste to the Japanese tourism industry.

Not only are the signature communal baths that define hot-spring resorts completely inadequate in the age of “social distancing,” but cautious tourists are also keen to avoid the process of getting to remote hot-spring towns, densely built up with inns and hotels amidst narrow streets, often reachable only through normally packed trains and buses.

In an era when tourists prefer to avoid crowds, the essentially crowded nature of hot-spring resorts almost seems anachronistic.

However, even beyond the ongoing crisis caused by Covid-19, hot springs face a long-term threat as tourists shift to other destinations. Media analyses have noted that especially among the Japanese youth, travel has become more about taking in new experiences rather than particular sights, consistent with the global trend toward experiential travel.

The focus on new experience places hot springs at a disadvantage, as the communal baths they offer cannot be considered novel for millions of Japanese who habitually soak up in hot tubs at home and communal baths (sento) in their local neighborhoods.

Some hot springs have faced particular difficulties in adjusting to such shifting tastes in travel. Successful hot springs have either adapted to the need to be Instagram-friendly, like Ginzan, or diversified into other tourist-friendly activities, like Hakone. But those unable to add further value for tourists beyond hot springs, like Kinugawa and Higashiyama, have seen formerly popular resorts shuttered, further driving away visitors as their rotting structures become eyesores.

As hot springs compete for a reduced number of tourists in the Covid and the post-Covid eras, the consolidation of the industry will see more resorts shut their doors for the last time.

The continuing strength of Japanese hot springs as a globally recognized and nationally treasured tourism resource may largely depend on how the currently successful resorts continue to adapt to the changing tastes of consumers.

With more than 40 resorts filing for bankruptcy due to Covid-19, the epidemic presents unprecedented pressure and opportunity for the hot-spring industry as a whole to reform how it does business and weed out resorts that are unable to change.

In an environment that prizes social distance and comprehensive anti-epidemic measures, on top of the decade-long trend toward diversified, experience-based travel, how hot springs can change their operational strategies and market attractions beyond their venerable communal baths will be a key to survival.

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Xiaochen Su

Xiaochen Su is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.