SAPPORO - The annual Snow Festival began in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo on Tuesday, hit by fears over the coronavirus outbreak and soaring costs involved in transporting snow to the site amid a warm winter.
The number of visitors to the winter event in the Hokkaido capital through Feb. 11 looks likely to dip below last year's record 2.74 million after China's ban on group travel due to the virus outbreak led to a mass cancellation of hotel bookings.
Unusually low snowfall since the end of last year has added to the headaches, with organizers having to go further than previous years to procure the snow needed to create the giant snow and ice carvings that are the centerpiece of the festival. At total of some 200 sculptures of various sizes are on display at three venues.
With up to 120 large trucks deployed daily to deliver snow -- twice as many as usual -- transportation costs could exceed the 46 million yen ($423,000) allocated in fiscal 2019 through March.
"Japanese tourists are also avoiding crowds this year over fears of getting infected," an organizing committee member said on the impact of the virus outbreak.
Antiseptic dispensers have been placed at the venues, while announcements in Japanese, English and Chinese call on visitors to wear masks among other measures to prevent infection.
The Sapporo education board said many of the city's elementary schools have decided not to visit the festival this year.
Among the sculptures on display are those themed on Upopoy, the National Ainu Museum and Park slated to open in April in the Hokkaido town of Shiraoi, as well as myths from the indigenous Ainu ethnic minority group.
At the Tsudome site, one of the festival's three venues, a 70-meter-long snow slide was on display -- 30 meters shorter than usual due to the lack of snow.