A Tourism Hotspot Locks Down as Japan’s Hokkaido Fights Virus

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(Bloomberg) -- Hokkaido in northern Japan is famed for its ski resorts, natural hot springs and flower-carpeted hills that make it a major tourism magnet. Now the most northern of the country’s four main islands is in virtual lock-down after an upsurge in coronavirus infections forced local authorities to declare a state of emergency.

Residents on the island roughly the size of Maine have been told to refrain from leaving their houses this weekend, Governor Naomichi Suzuki said in a hastily scheduled press conference. While the home quarantine will only run through the weekend, the state of emergency will remain in place until March 19, he said.

The prefecture, a popular destination among foreigners drawn by its bucolic nature, fresh seafood and elaborate snow festivals, has become a hotbed of the virus, with about a third of the country’s total -- excluding those related to the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship -- located on the island.

“Many people, not just within Japan, but from outside the country, come and go in winter time,” said Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido. “I think that traffic is causing the number of infections.”

Clusters have emerged across the island, home to more than 5 million people. Tracking the path of some cases hasn’t been possible because some of those infected haven’t shown the typical symptoms, Suzuki said.

One group of six people who attended an exhibit in northern Hokkaido in mid-February were infected. An office worker at a snow festival was infected, as was a child that may have been exposed to other infants in a kindergarten, according to local media reports.

One explanation of the rapid spread of the virus is Hokkaido’s popularity as a winter tourism destination. The famed Sapporo Snow Festival, where artists carve giant sculptures from ice, draws millions of visitors from around the world every year. Resorts such as Niseko attract skiers enjoying its powdery snow.

Whether the measures will be effective remains to be seen. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday called for all schools in the country to close from Monday until the end of their spring holidays, taking the unprecedented move in a bid to combat further spread of the virus.

“A lot of research suggests prohibiting mass gathering, and school closure is effective in early infection stage,” said Tsukamoto. “This is not early stage. It’s a little too late.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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