Japan’s Beppu onsen region turns to ‘sports tourism’ to boost local economy

Plumes of steam rise from the hot springs of Beppu in Oita Prefecture. (Mainichi / Junko Adachi)

BEPPU, Oita – A group from Oita Prefecture, southwestern Japan, tried to reinvigorate the famous hot springs of Beppu Onsen through esports events, in which players compete via video games.

Oita Esports Union, based in the city of Oita, works to promote esports, which has become very popular around the world. Group chairman Koken Nishimura, 42, commented: “We would like to show a new form of tourism called ‘esport tourism.'”

Nishimura first became interested in esports after watching a video of an international competition held abroad. Watching a large crowd of fans at a stadium cheering on professional players, Nishimura saw the potential of esports as an entertainment event and thought the sport could help energize Oita Prefecture. He finally launched his group in August 2016.

For a while after the union was founded, Nishimura organized games and other related events, but realized that these alone would not promote what was unique to the prefecture. He therefore had the idea of ​​associating this sport with hot springs, the largest source of tourism in the prefecture. After many visits to the Beppu municipal government office, he obtained the cooperation of the city to organize events in the hot spring area. Nishimura recalled, “Beppu has organized various events. They enthusiastically welcomed my idea ‘as long as esport helps stimulate the local community’.”

The first esports event, “Beppu Onsen Lan”, was held at the Beppu International Tourist Port in March 2019. During the two-day event, gaming enthusiasts brought their own consoles to compete and professional players have shown the appeal of esports to children. Among the 150 or so participants were some from the Kanto region in eastern Japan, such as Chiba Prefecture. Nishimura realized that attracting people to esports tournaments could help boost the local economy as the number of guests in accommodation establishments and customers in restaurants increased.

However, due to the pandemic, it has become difficult to organize large-scale events that attract people from other prefectures. Although Nishimura’s group hosted an esport event at the Kijima Kogen Hotel in Beppu in September 2020, it was only for one day and participants were limited to residents of Oita Prefecture.

“Originally, we were looking to bring in people from other prefectures to increase the number of overnight guests, but we also wanted to avoid causing problems by spreading infections,” Nishimura said. He continues to look for ways to organize events to draw people in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s important to run contests that bring people to Beppu Onsen, instead of running them online,” Nishimura said. “We want to host a world-class esport event in Oita Prefecture, which aims to become a globally recognized spa town.”

(Japanese original by Shusaku Sugimoto, Sports Projects Department)

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