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Tourism goal within reach, JTA chief says

ASEAN surge bodes well but more action needed to achieve 10 million

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The rapid drop in the yen helped lure a record 3.17 million tourists to Japan from January to April, but achieving the government’s goal of 10 million this year will require more work, Japan Tourism Agency Commissioner Norifumi Ide said.

The first quarter was a good sign, but “if the momentum remains at this level, we will miss the 10 million goal by an inch, so we have to take some more measures,” Ide said in an interview with The Japan Times last week.

Japan saw increased momentum last month, too. The Japan National Tourism Organization said Wednesday that 875,000 visited Japan, a 31.2 percent increase compared with May 2012 and the third-largest figure ever for the monthly count.

Ide said one plan is to boost the inflow from Southeast Asia by easing visa requirements. The only members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations whose citizens are allowed to enter Japan without a visa are Singapore and Brunei.

Ide said Japan plans to offer visa waivers to ASEAN members Thailand and Malaysia by summer and allow Vietnamese and Phillippinos to get multiple-entry visas instead of temporary ones.

Visitors from the ASEAN nations have risen sharply in the January-April period compared with the same period last year.

Visitors from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Phillippines rose 50 percent, 51 percent, 48.8 percent and 28.2 percent, respectively.

“We have held promotional events especially for people in ASEAN. We’ve invited travel agencies from there and taken them around Japan,” the veteran land ministry bureaucrat said.

Ide said the region’s economic growth and an rise in flights to Japan also contributed to the surge.

Visitors from other countries have basically risen as well — except for China.

The number of Chinese who came to Japan during the four-month period sank 29 percent. Much of this has to do with the ongoing territorial disputes Japan is waging with historic rivals China and South Korea.

Japan, however, actually received a 36.2 percent increase in South Korean visitors compared with last year. South Koreans mostly travel individually, while the Chinese appear to be fond of group tours, Ide said.

In addition, he said the JTA has been closely working with South Korea to promote tourism to both countries.

The Chinese appear to share that sentiment but may be under different pressures.

“We’ve been frequently communicating with our Chinese counterpart and they don’t want to see the tourism industries affected by (politics),” he said.

While Japan is nearing its 10 million annual visitor goal, Ide said the number is “just a stepping stone” to achieving a loftier goal of 20 million that hasn’t been set yet.

Japan’s record of 8.61 million was set in 2010, but only placed 30th in the global rankings.

The growth strategy being pounded into the media by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe states that Japan’s goal is to reach 30 million visitors in 2030.

Ide declined to comment on the timeline for achieving 20 million, but said the measures drafted in a recently compiled “action plan” are sure to be implemented.

The action plan includes improving Japan’s brand image via promotional content, like anime broadcast overseas. It also said efforts are under way to improve the transportation network, for instance, by expanding airport capacities in metropolitan areas and shortening immigration processing times.

“If we implement the action plan’s measures step by step, we’ll be paving a path to attract 20 million foreign visitors,” Ide said.

These goals, however, sound somewhat inconceivable, especially when Japan is obviously unready to accommodate such a vast influx of visitors.

Just going by the numbers, Ide said he believes Japan already has enough facilities for 20 million visitors. But at the micro level, he admits many things need to be improved.

For instance, even though there may be enough hotel rooms, more of them need to be more foreigner-friendly in terms of signage and staff communication ability.