Japan turns on the charm to win over tourists

The East Asian nation sees overseas visitors as a key means of boosting economic growth

Japan, Kinki Region, Hyogo Prefecture, View of Kiyomizu-dera temple. (Photo by: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images)

Some financial institutions and other businesses in Japan are endeavouring to attract visitors to the country's regions and rural areas as the torism sector powers up to be a key plank in the country's economy.

"Japan's tourism industry is on the verge of becoming a major economic engine for the country, the management consulting firmMcKinsey says in its report titled The future of Japan’s tourism: Path for sustainable growth towards 2020.

In 2020, Japan will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games - a global platform for its people, culture, and landmarks.

Recently, tourism has been positioned as an engine to solve social challenges in Japan and support economic growth. The McKinsey report describes how Japan has the potential to more than double its annual GDP growth, to 3 per cent, by increasing productivity.

"This insight is also applicable to tourism, and this report investigates the challenges and potential impact of several initiatives aimed at addressing obstacles to realising its inbound tourism goals," it says.

And financial entities are moving to push the sector outside of the major mainland conurbations. On two tours in November, organised by the Tokyo-based payment card issuer JCB in collaboration with The Kagoshima Bank and the Kyushu Financial Group's Higo Bank, two groups of Taiwanese JCB cardholders, of about 30 members each, came on five-day tours to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's three biggest islands.

One group went to Kagoshima Prefecture, the other to Kumamoto Prefecture. Both The Kagoshima Bank and the Kyushu Financial Group are based in Kagoshima City, the capital of Kagoshima Prefecture. Like the United States with its 50 states, Japan is divided into 47 prefectures. The capital, Tokyo, is itself not a city but a prefecture.

JCB has around 24 million overseas cardholders, business promotion department assistant vice president Takeshi Hamabe, tells The National. "We believe that knowledge of Japan will increase and tourists will be able to enjoy their stay more by experiencing nature and culture specific to rural areas, instead of going to big cities like Tokyo and Osaka," Mr Hamabe says.

Insurance companies are also getting in on the act. Tokyo Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance set up a 24-hour call centre in July last year to support foreign tourists in the event of sickness or other difficulties, as part of its services for policyholder companies.

Besides Japanese, the company offers support in Chinese, English, French, Indonesian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Thai and Vietnamese, the company corporate communications group deputy manager Daiki Fujimaki tells The National.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government is also setting up policies to promote tourism to regional areas.

The ministry of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism's Japan Tourism Agency is setting up regional tourism routes and is providing assistance for improving local accomodation facilities, the Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO), an "independent administrative institution" of the government of Japan which promotes travel within the country, tells The National.

While accommodation is difficult to find in big-city areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, there is much lower occupancy rate in regional areas. "There are many little-known charms in the regional areas, so we will try to attract tourists there and strive to win repeat visitors," the JNTO says.

Although there are many tourists from Europe and the US who come to Japan for the first time, the numbers of repeat visitors from East Asian countries are increasing, and they are much interested in going to regional areas, the JNTO says.

Compiled from Japan Ministry of Finance data, JNTO figures show a record 24,038,700 tourists came to Japan last year, a 21.8 per cent increase from 2015's 19,737,409 visitors. The government aims to up that figure to 40 million by 2020, when the Olympic Games will be held there, and 60 million by 2030.

JTB Corporation, Japan's biggest travel agency and one of the biggest in the world, promotes tourism to regional areas with the idea that it will lead to their revitalisation, public relations and brand strategy official Hisato Okabe, tells The National. The countries targeted for attracting tourists vary according to the area to be visited, Mr Okabe says.

In Japan as a whole, JTB's promotions focus on attracting people from Europe, the US and Australia, Mr Okabe says, but it is widening its offering. "We started this fiscal year a new bus business targeting customers in the Spanish-speaking countries of South America, and are developing for them five touristic routes to regional areas,"  he adds.

Tokyo-based Geelee Media Group offers tourism information online, targeting tourists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, many of whom are repeat visitors to Japan. The company offers insights about regional areas in Japan, penned by about 30 writers from Taiwan and Hong Kong who live in Japan.

Of all the tourists who visited Japan in 2016, 6.1 million, about 25 per cent, came from Hong Kong and Taiwan. About 200,000 more came from mainland China, but that is only 0.5 per cent of the total population of that country, the Geelee public relations official Saeko Furujo tells The National.

Conversely, the number of visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan to Japan last year made up 20 per cent of the 30.7 million of those two countries' combined population, Ms Furujo says.

Moreover, data shows that 80 per cent of people from Taiwan and Hong Kong visit Japan more than twice, and 20 per cent visit Japan more than 10 times. "In other words, people from Taiwan and Hong Kong are those visiting Japan the most in the world," Ms Furujo says.

The Japanese are not particularly good at local authority collaboration, but to increase the attractiveness of a given region, it is important to involve not only local tourist officials but also local agriculture, forestry and fisheries officials, traditional craftspeople, researchers, shopping streets, etc, the Toray Corporate Business Research chief analyst Tomomi Nagai tells The National.

"It is important not to leave things up to the government but to send information directly from localities to tourists thinking about travelling to Japan," Ms Nagai says.

Other necessary initiatives are on the digital front, creating easy-to-understand homepages in foreign languages, credit settlement for accommodation facilities and tourist facilities admission tickets, for example, Ms Nagai says. She points out the websites of tourism bureaus of France and the UK, from which tickets can be purchased from their Japanese pages.

"We need such initiatives in Japan also," Ms Nagai says.

And along with the expansion of promotional efforts, it will be necessary to develop a high-quality reception environment, Mitsufumi Tanaka, the tourist strategy group general manager at Mitsubishi UFJ Research & Consulting, tells The National. That means, "a Japan where foreigners can be easily understood, a Japan with high hospitality," Mr Tanaka says.