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Games not golden for nearby ski resort

There's something noticeably missing among the sea of smiling faces and outlandish ski outfits in this resort ski town about one hour from Nagano. Skiers.

Normally, Hakuba is bustling this time of year. Bustling with tens of thousands of Japan's rich and famous who make Hakuba a very exclusive playground for winter sports enthusiasts and the fashion-conscious.But not this year. Hakuba, which sits at the foot of what the locals affectionately call the Japanese Alps and is strikingly similar to Park City, is hosting Olympic alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and ski jumping. And it is not hosting very many Japanese ski vacationers.

Even though the streets are bustling with thousands and thousands of visitors, many coming from the farthest corners of the globe with money to burn, most of Hakuba's stores are deserted. There are even vacancies in some hotels and half-price specials on ski rentals.

But few people are biting, prompting local businessmen to coin the term "the Olympic recession."

It is a familiar scene to Park City officials who are in Hakuba for the Winter Games. The same thing happened during Winter Games in Albertville, France, in 1992, and Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994.

"Forewarned is forearmed," said Joan Calder, executive director of Park City's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "No one yet has figured out a way to overcome that problem. We have to be on the cutting edge and figure out how to be successful."

But one lesson learned from past Winter Games is that the Olympics "is not a monolithic economic bonanza" during which businesses hike prices and sit back and wait for profits to roll in.

"It not like shooting fish in a barrel," Myles C. Rademan, public affairs director for Park City Municipal Corp., told the Deseret News.

Hakuba is about an hour from Nagano, only slightly more than Park City is from Salt Lake City. Both Hakuba and Park City have reputations for high prices and catering to the rich and famous.

And both are almost entirely dependent upon tourism for their economic survivals.

Hakuba merchants and hotel owners told Park City officials that business is down 50 percent during the Games.

"That's exactly what we found in Lillehammer and Albertville," said Hugh Daniels, a member of the Park City Council. "During the year of the Games, even though they last only 17 days, the world thinks it lasts all winter."

So the people who would normally come to Nagano for skiing stay away, either due to misinformation about inavailability of lodging or a desire to ski somewhere less crowded or to avoid the notoriously bad traffic jams on Hakuba's narrow streets.

Ironically, Hakuba and its sister communities have several other ski resorts, all visible from the downtown area and all with few skiers. Only two or three skiers a minute could be seen sliding down those slopes.

Compare that to Hakuba's normal capacity of 30,000 skiers a day. "The skiers are all going somewhere else," said the manager of the Salomon Ski Rentals shop in Hakuba.

"We have no business. None."

That's not quite true. The store has taken to selling cheap plastic horns to those wanting to make noise at downhill events. About 300 yen, or $2.50, a horn compared to ski rentals of well over $100 each.

While Hakuba is a venue for popular events, Nagano is still the center of the Games. Similarly, the hustle of activity, especially at night, will likely center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Park City expects the relationship in 2002 between it and Salt Lake City to be much the same as the relationship now between Nagano and Hakuba. Still, Daniels said, "We have to come up with opportunities for people to stay in our town. We need to give them a reason to eat, shop and launder there."

There's some thought, Rademan said, that they'll be some pent-up Olympics demand in the United States, especially since the 1998 and 2000 Games will have been held so far away. But counting on that, suggests Daniels, would be foolhardy.

It is after the Games - the years to come - when Park City should feel the real benefit of hosting the 2002 Games.

Hosting the Games has pushed Hakuba much higher in the Japanese ski market. The marketing benefit and international exposure is priceless. You can't buy that. Even though Albertville and Lillehammer were down the year of the Games, they have grown each year since. Lake Placid, host for the 1980 Winter Games, has also found growth as a summer resort - something for which Park City is lusting, as well.