Photo/Illutration The lobby of the Okawaso inn in the Ashinomaki hot spring area of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Hotels and inns around Japan are making various moves to deal with staffing shortages, but they have largely avoided one step that experts say could alleviate the problem: offering improved employment packages.

The novel coronavirus pandemic devastated the hospitality sector, and many workers quit their jobs at hotels and other accommodations.

Visitor numbers have increased in recent months following the eased entry restrictions on foreign tourists and the resumption of the government travel subsidy program.

But staffing numbers have not rebounded.

The Okawaso inn in the Ashinomaki hot spring area of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, has been a topic of interest on social media because its high-ceilinged lobby is very similar to a location in the popular “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” anime series.

But the inn is using only about 70 percent of its 110 rooms because of a staff shortage. Despite rising demand for the rooms, only about half of the guest capacity is filled on a daily basis.

“We have taken the strategy of limiting the number of guests, but we’ve raised the average price per room by improving services and customer satisfaction through, for example, renovations,” said Koji Watanabe, the company president.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a plunge in group guests, such as senior citizens, so the inn moved toward targeting smaller groups. But that meant providing meals in separate rooms.

With 20 fewer workers compared to before the pandemic, the inn has been forced to limit reservations.

Hotels and inns have long struggled to attract and retain workers because the average pay is about 20 percent less than what the general working population receives, according to labor ministry statistics.

The owner of a hotel in an entertainment district of Osaka city will sometimes man the front desk and help to clean rooms because of a staff shortage. The hotel can operate only about 75 percent of its rooms.

“The impression has stuck that the lodging industry is an unstable one as a workplace,” the owner said.

A resort hotel in Kyoto has reduced the number of rooms with in-room dinner service and offers only breakfast or no meals at all because it lacks enough workers.

And instead of offering dishes one course at a time, the entire meal is brought to the guest at one go.

“The staffing shortage problem is worse than before,” said Shintaro Nogata, an executive at Tokyo-based Dive Inc., a staffing company that introduces part-time jobs in resort areas.

“It was said that about 100,000 or so people quit the hotel industry due to the pandemic, and many are not returning to the sector,” he said.

Hotels desperate for staff have inquired with Dive for new personnel. The number of requests has increased by about 2.5 times from the level before the pandemic.

From July 2022, the government of Yuzawa, a town in Niigata Prefecture known for its hot springs, has operated a job-matching site that allows individuals to sign on for a single shift or to work for just a few hours a day.

One of the hotels operated by Nagano-based Hoshino Resorts is the OMO 5 Kyoto Sanjo hotel. The hotel uses smaller and lighter dishes so that more plates can be washed and dried at once in the dishwasher. That means fewer workers are needed to handle the breakfast traffic.

Digital technology has also been used to operate hotels with fewer staff members by, for example, mechanizing the check-in process and automatically managing reservations.

Mitsuo Fujiyama, a senior researcher at Japan Research Institute Ltd., said the inability to deal with structural problems in the hospitality sector, such as low pay, has led to the negative effects now.

“There is a need to improve pay, reform working conditions and push for a digital transformation,” Fujiyama said. “Hotels and tourism areas that make such moves will flourish while those that do not will fall by the wayside. A bipolarization will proceed even further in the future.”

(This article was written by Go Takahashi, Daisuke Matsuoka and Hideaki Ishiyama.)