WELL-HEELED TRAVELERS SEEKING HIGH-CLASS TRIPS

Travel agencies revamp package tours as yen for luxury revives

by Shinichi Tokuda

Kyodo News

Overseas travel has long ceased to be a luxury in Japan, where many people take advantage of the plethora of discount air tickets and package tours for quick trips abroad.

But the travel industry is once again focusing on the big profits to be had from pedaling high-end tour packages.

One major player in the business, H.I.S. Co., already appears to be profiting by catering to customers with a taste for extravagance.

“We hope to tap further into the demand from wealthy tourists,” said Hideyasu Umetani, who is in charge of the new operations focusing on wealthy travelers.

After a recession that has lasted well over a decade, the economy finally seems to be coming out of the woods. That process, however, has set in motion a subtle shift in the nation’s socioeconomic landscape that many think is widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

Against this background, affluent consumers have again emerged as the primary target of travel agencies, which are introducing an expanding array of expensive tour packages.

The effort seems to be paying off.

Luxury tours well beyond the means of the average traveler are now selling like hot cakes, several major travel agencies reported.

In September 2003, JTB Corp. opened a plush sales office named Royal Road Ginza in Tokyo’s tony Ginza shopping district. It is by far the most exclusive of the company’s 300 outlets in Japan.

It sits on the second floor of a building situated along one of the popular boulevards in the district, which is lined with boutiques showcasing the world’s most famous fashion houses. The office is richly appointed to convey the image of a salon in an aristocratic residence in England, the major travel agency said.

Particularly popular among the company’s tours are luxury cruises. Packages on offer include a 100-day, round-the-world trip on the Asuka II, a deluxe, 400-room luxury liner accommodating 720 customers.

The ship, operated by the Nippon Yusen K.K. group, went into service in February. Price per passenger ranges from 3.6 million yen to 18.0 million yen.

“Many customers who sign up for the tour are wealthy, retired couples in their 70s,” said JTB official Kazuharu Abe. “Such people pay an average price of about 5.5 million yen per person.”

The ship’s voyages, scheduled to begin in April, have already sold out. JTB will begin accepting orders for the 2008 trip in July, but that is also likely to sell out immediately, he said.

Since Royal Road Ginza opened, sales of cruise packages have been galloping ahead at a pace of 200 percent to 300 percent per year, he said.

Other popular JTB packages include flights to the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, where holidaymakers can enjoy cruises for 10 days or so.

Voyages on luxury boats are not the only attraction the exclusive JTB outlet is offering its wealthy customers.

People are flocking to hear virtuoso musical performances abroad, particularly this year in part because it marks the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday. Royal Road Ginza said sales of tours featuring classical musical events are surging at a year-on-year rate of about 400 percent.

“Music fans are not content with just going to concerts of famous orchestras in Japan and are seeking the thrill of hearing the performances of top-notch artists in the musical capitals of the world,” JTB’s Abe said.

JTB’s clientele who favor such trips are well-heeled professionals, including lawyers and doctors in their 60s, he added.

The allure of the newly lucrative business serving these high-fliers is causing some tour companies to venture outside their traditional customer bases to bring well-to-do consumers into the fold.

Last June, H.I.S., a major purveyor of discount air tickets, opened a similarly swanky sales office called Ginza Vivalet near the JTB outlet to serve customers looking for premium packages.

“When our company was founded 26 years ago, our main customers were young people who wanted to go abroad but had only small amounts of money,” Umetani said. Those former youth, who now enjoy a much better social status, no longer opt for budget packages, in which the company specialized in the past, he added.

Vivalet offers about a dozen main tour categories.

“But we closely talk with each customer to book hotels and restaurants, including even those that are not listed in our brochures,” Umetani said. “What we are trying to do is to offer trips tailored to customers’ individual needs.”

Many wealthy customers visiting Vivalet, mostly in their 40s and 50s, prefer to go to Europe. Since a good number of them also want to attend concerts and operas, the office has salespeople who are knowledgeable about classical music.

Upmarket will likely remain the buzzword among many tour companies, especially if the latest uptick in the economy turns into a full-blown recovery, industry officials said.