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Friday, April 11, 2008

TOURISM, COMMERCE ON UPSWING

Russia's boom times stretch to Niigata


Staff writer

NIIGATA — Ripples from Russia's booming economy have crossed the Sea of Japan, lapping at the shores of Niigata Prefecture and leading to strengthened ties.

News photo
Hiroo Nishiwaki, owner of Flower Farm Shirone, has been shipping his tulips from Niigata to the Russian Far East for the last four years. KAZUAKI NAGATA PHOTO

Interaction between Niigata and the cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok is becoming more visible in many ways, including commerce and tourism.

For example, Niigata's popular Yuzawa ski resort is now drawing significant levels of tourists from the Russian Far East.

According to Naeba Prince Hotel in the town of Yuzawa, the number of Russian travelers staying there during the 2007-2008 ski season reached 2,500, compared with around 60 five years ago.

Hotel spokesman Hiroya Hayashi said many of the visitors are repeat customers, and he has heard that the resort's reputation has spread among Russians mainly through word of mouth.

The government's Yokoso! Japan (Visit Japan) campaign and various other promotional activities, including inviting Russian travel agents to the resort, may have contributed to the increase, he said.

Many of the Russian ski tourists are from Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Niigata Airport has twice-weekly direct flights to and from both cities. It takes only about 90 minutes to fly in from Vladivostok, and a manageable two hours from Khabarovsk. According to Vladivostok Air, 76.2 percent of the seats on its Niigata-Vladivostok flights were occupied in business 2007, up 8.6 percentage points from the year before.

"The increase in Russian travelers during the ski season surpassed our expectations," said Kenji Hanaoka, sales manager of Vladivostok Air.

Naeba Prince Hotel has added a Russian version to its guide brochures for foreign visitors. They were already available in English, Chinese and Korean. The hotel has also hired Russian exchange students attending a college in the city of Niigata as part-time workers during the peak season.

"Repeat customers said they were glad to see that we have staff who can speak their language," Hayashi said.

Kulakov Vasilii, the Russian consul general in Niigata, said travel to Japan has become more affordable for many people as Russia's economy continues to grow, and both Japanese and Russian travel agencies have been promoting trips to Niigata, he said.

Russia's gross domestic product has expanded about 6.9 percent a year on average over the last nine years, according to International Monetary Fund statistics.

"The economic conditions of both (Russia and Japan) are becoming better," Vasilii said in identifying the primary reason why interaction between the two nations has become more active.

"Especially, the economic situation in Russia has changed."

While more Russian travelers are visiting the Sea of Japan coastal areas of Japan, some of Niigata's local specialties have been shipped to the Russian Far East.

Vasilii said agricultural products, including Niigata grapes and Le Lectier pears, have been exported to Russia in recent years. The volume is not big, but it is increasing, he added.

He said these organically grown products are healthy and of high quality, and are well-received in the Russian Far East.

"They are rather expensive compared with other (products), but the market is ready," he said.

"For me, what's important is to show the local businessmen (in Niigata) that a great market is close by. For Russians, it is good because we can supply our people with very high-quality products."

The Niigata Prefectural Government said the value of exports by companies in the prefecture to Russia jumped from ¥337 million in 2000 to ¥1.58 billion in 2006.

Hiroo Nishiwaki, owner of the Flower Farm Shirone in Niigata, started exporting tulips to Russia four years ago.

The prefecture is one of Japan's top cut-tulip producers, and Nishiwaki's farm produces about 8.5 million tulips, about 12 percent of all the tulips sold in Japan.

Nishiwaki said that in importing tulip bulbs from the Netherlands, the Dutch exporters informed him that Russia is a good market for flowers.

He said the culture of giving flowers as gifts is well-established in Russia; for instance, many men give flowers to women on March 8, International Women's Day.

Testing the market, Nishiwaki started out by exporting 5,100 tulips to Russia that first season. The next year he bumped the number up to a little more than 60,000. Last year it was about 115,000, the same he plans for this year.

"I think the demand and the market are becoming more stable," said Nishiwaki, who has gotten high marks in Russia for his tulips.

When he visited the Russian Far East to research the market, he found that the variety of available flowers was limited and they did not appear fresh.

He said it takes about a week for flowers from the Netherlands to arrive there, while Niigata's proximity means flowers shipped in the morning can be sold at stores in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk around noon the next day.

"It's no different from shipping to Tokyo," he said.

For his part, Vasilii hopes the interaction will only become more active.

"Japanese are beginning to understand that (there is) a very big prosperous market just about 800 km from here," he said. "I think it is only the beginning because the possibilities are very big."



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