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Kansai gropes to find right hook

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — PROMOTING TOURISM FROM CHINA

In Osaka’s Den Den Town, the electronics quarter in the Nipponbashi district, duty-free shops selling everything from cameras to perfume bustle with foreign customers.

A bus full of Chinese tourists pulls up beside one such store and they head inside.

“Coming to Osaka wasn’t my idea. I’m here on a three-day tour with my work colleagues that took us to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. I actually wanted to go to Tokyo, although I really enjoyed Nara,” Wang Peng, a 33-year-old woman from Beijing, says through an interpreter while waiting in front of the store for her travel companions to finish shopping.

“What I liked most about Osaka was just going into an ordinary ‘izakaya’ (pub) and having a few beers. We were told about Osaka Castle before we came to Japan, but when I heard what it was, I didn’t want to go,” says Jin Feng, a 36-year-old man in the group.

With an estimated 80 percent of the 1 million Chinese who come to Japan each year passing through the Kansai region, local government and business leaders hope July’s relaxation of income requirements for tourist visas will lead to a greater influx of visitors from the mainland.

At the same time, however, comments from tourists like Wang and Jin as well as surveys by local business groups, suggest gaps remain between the way official Kansai envisions Chinese spending their time and the needs and desires of the tourists themselves.

And while Kansai’s businesses look forward to welcoming new customers in their stores, there are questions about whether the region has the tourism infrastructure — and the necessary frame of mind — to allow Chinese tourists the best possible experience outside of shopping.

Kansai has long touted itself as Japan’s gateway to Asia, and its economic links to China are particularly strong.

The Middle Kingdom was the No. 1 destination for Kansai’s exports in 2008, accounting for ¥3.3 trillion, or 20 percent of the regional total and 25 percent of Japanese exports to China. That same year, Chinese imports to Kansai totaled ¥4.2 trillion, accounting for 30 percent of the region’s total imports and 28.6 percent of Japan’s imports from China.

Nor have the exchanges been limited to goods. Kansai International Airport has 197 direct flights a week to China (Narita, by contrast, has 341).

Despite insisting Osaka Prefecture was all but bankrupt and deep budget cuts were necessary, Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto enthusiastically supported keeping prefectural funds for an Osaka booth at the World Expo in Shanghai as a way to draw more Chinese tourists.

Efforts by Kansai to bring in more Chinese are working, but more finely tuned efforts may be needed.

A Development Bank of Japan report last month shows that Chinese make up the largest group of foreign guests in the region’s hotels. The report notes that most Chinese visitors come in group tours that take them between Tokyo and Osaka. They often land in one city and depart from the other, staying in the country for a total of about five days.

While many Chinese pass through cities in Kansai, however, they tend not to linger.

“The tour package usually includes long stays in Tokyo. Because ‘Kansai In, Kansai Out’ tours are more popular than tours that allow Chinese to stay more nights in Kansai over longer periods, the region’s charm is not conveyed,” the report warns.

A survey of foreign tourists also released in May by the Kansai Economic Federation shows that Chinese visitors have mixed reviews of tourism promotions put forward by Kansai’s business and government leaders.

For sightseeing, Kansai officially touts things like the Takarazuka Review and Yoshimoto Kogyo “manzai” standup comedy, local cuisine such as “takoyaki” (octopus dumplings) and architectural works like the Umeda Sky Building, as well as traditional performing arts such as kabuki and noh, and visits to the temples and shrines of Kyoto.

More recently, attractions like street fashion, “manga” and “anime” museums and exhibits, Kyoto’s movie village, Toei Kyoto Studio Park, and local festivals have been added as reasons to visit Kansai.

“Chinese go sightseeing in Kyoto and do their shopping in Osaka. But more than historical attractions, they are interested in modern Japan,” the Kansai Economic Federation survey said. “They are also interested in things connected to China or things they can’t see in China. Festivals might be a possible tour option, but Chinese don’t see them as a reason to visit Kansai.”

It added that noh and kabuki are unlikely to draw large numbers of Chinese tourists because of the linguistic and cultural barriers involved with translating works about ancient Japan into modern Chinese.

In the case of Osaka’s Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy, which past international tourism campaigns emphasized, the business federation noted that the Chinese sense of humor is different from that found in Osaka, and it would be difficult for Yoshimoto Kogyo to find popularity with Chinese tourists.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Kansai faces, though, is to ensure sufficient Chinese-language information for tourists to travel around as cheaply as possible and enjoy themselves as much as those with higher incomes do.

Both Wang and Jin say they had very little information about Kansai or Japan before they came, and a wide variety of Kansai business and government leaders are calling for increased regional promotional efforts in China, but some wonder just how effective that will be.

“Those who come from July are going to have less money than those who are now coming and will seek out the cheapest possible places to shop and eat, which is good news for places like American-mura and Den Den Town,” said Yoshiaki Kimura, an Osaka-based travel consultant.

“But Kansai’s tourism campaigns to date have focused on getting high-income tour groups. Unless it’s made easier and cheaper for Chinese tourists without such high incomes to enjoy themselves while in Kansai, it will be hard to attract more tourists and those who do come may not enjoy themselves,” he said.