Tourists flocking to Japan but few venture off the beaten track


With the number of visitors to Japan expected to surpass 13 million this year, officials need to entice tourists to get out of the cities and spread the benefit to rural economies.

The Japan Tourism Agency’s projected total for visitors in 2014 represents an increase of more than 25 percent from the record high of 10.36 million in 2013 and a surge of more than 50 percent from 2012.

Shigeto Kubo, the agency’s commissioner, said growth this rapid was unexpected, but the government is still focused on its ambitious target of 20 million visitors in 2015.

The surge means tourism infrastructure is under pressure. A Nippon Travel Agency Co. employee who handles requests from overseas travel agencies for accommodations, buses and catering said the jump in numbers has caught the sector off guard.

“We used to be able to reserve a hotel easily with one phone call in the off-season. But now, we have many problems,” the employee said, adding that hotel and bus fees have been rising.

The most popular travel package for foreign tourists is the so-called golden route of Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Osaka. With more than 60 percent of foreign visitors following this itinerary, lodgings are often booked full.

“In terms of transportation capacity, it would be physically difficult” to accommodate 20 million visitors if they follow the current pattern of concentrating on large cities, an official with a major travel agency said.

To achieve the 20 million target, it is imperative that demand is nurtured for a wide variety of destinations, not just the better known ones, said Hiroyuki Takahashi, president of JTB Corp.

The government has been promoting what it calls the “Dragon Route,” an itinerary linking destinations in nine prefectures, mainly in central Japan. The initiative is a bid to attract tourists from China, known for their affection for the mythical creature.

The route, which has the shape of a rising dragon, includes such attractions as Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Gokayama hamlet in Toyama Prefecture, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its “gassho” houses with steeply pitched thatched roofs.

Leading travel agencies also are trying to help foreign tourists discover attractions beyond Japan’s major cities. An increase in the number of foreign visitors to rural areas would invigorate local economies through spending and aid the regional revitalization sought by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But in the short term, there is little prospect of relieving the concentration of foreign visitors in large cities.

Hiromi Tagawa, chairman of the Japan Association of Travel Agents, expressed concern that increasing numbers of foreign tourists in Kyoto, for example, could cause problems for tour operators during the high season for school excursions, as there may be a shortage of buses.

  • GBR48

    The trick here may be to persuade tourists to stay for longer, from 7-10 days to 14+ days. Many tourists, at least on a first visit, are going to want to explore Tokyo, which has a lot of the best known tourist sites. Extending their trips allows them to spend more time in other places. The regions need to fight for those second and thid weeks and for repeat visitors. Much of what they need to do is fairly easy to determine and then roll out, wherever you are in Japan.

    That’s tourists in the classical sense, rather than touring shoppers. The two groups are very different and the latter could more easily be persuaded to visit somewhere in Japan that was nearer to their own nation than Tokyo and less crowded, if it has the shops they want.

    I still find the idea of visiting Japan to shop quite extraordinary. Import duties must be low at returning customs, the currency rates must be attractive, and those arriving must be doing so with empty suitcases and muscles like Popeye to lug stuff back home.

    Did that lady in the photo really travel from China to Japan to buy a rice cooker?

    The constant emphasis on travel agents is interesting. I’m guessing that the majority of visitors from Asia use them, as for Westerners, DIY planning is often the order of the day, putting together a flight, accommodation and an itinerary from online resources. The internet has opened up Japan for many more travellers from other continents.

    Should the government do more? Well yes and no. A lot of this is really the job of regional administrators and councillors who should be doing the most they can to attract people to their area. Anyone offering accommodation or managing a tourist venue should also be doing their bit, advertising it online in multiple languages and registering with the online booking sites. Many local venues have multilingual websites, but some are still Japanese only. Given the number of people fluent in foreign languages in Japan, it shouldn’t be difficult to get your site online in several languages. Maybe the Government could support translation services to small businesses in the run up to the Olympics.

    Generally the government needs to be reserved for the big stuff, like relaxing the rules on room rental-an essential requirement for 2020.

    I recently discovered one area where things have gone badly awry. The Noto Line in Ishikawa Prefecture was a 61km railway line that closed in 2005. When a rail line shuts, it damages the future potential of an area. A railway is a precious resource. Instead of closing an underused one, or hiving it off to inexperienced third parties, low usage suggests the need for rejuvenation, perhaps through tourism.

    It’s dispiriting that so much money is cheerfully ploughed into the new Maglev line, whilst regional railways are allowed to fade away. Once the railways go, tourism often declines below the tipping point of viability. Maybe the government and the railways need to look to finding a low-cost railway technology and sustainable method of operation that could be used on these routes, whilst tourism is developed to support their use, and to help revive the local economy.

    If you want to see some of the lost stations of Japan, search YouTube for ‘Ghost Stations – Disused Railway Stations in Japan’. It’s rather sad, and may best exemplify the difficulties faced by Japan’s regions. It also features the spectacularly ugly Kunikane Station (1m 19s in). So ugly it’s adorable, and merits a place on tourist itineraries, should it still be standing.

    Trains are fast, easy to use, cheap, environmentally friendly and great for tourists. If you have an endangered railway line, fight for it.

    And as Fuji was mentioned in the article. Those responsible might like to build a pedestrian walkway from a station on the Tokaido shinkansen line that goes past it. Run it far enough out of town so that you can build a viewing platform on one side of the line, with an unobstructed view of the mountain: nothing but farmers fields, marshland or trees between photographers and Fuji. On the other side of the line, the obligatory cafes, souvenir shops and facilities.

  • rossdorn

    There is no trick to make people stay longer… what may help is the weak Yen, that is all.

    Stay and visit the cpountry side? In a country where the major attraction are a mountain, which the japanese continuously pretend to have made with their own hands, and a city, where outside the huge center of town every road and suburb do look exactly identical? The same kind of houses, the same kind of shops, the same kind of retaurants, the same kind of streets?

    So, come off it!

    All there is to see in the countryside can be seen from a Shinkasen, going North or going West to Osaka.

    If prices were not so insane that only Japanese are willing to pay them then visitors might go to Okinawa. All my friends that came to Japan, told me exactly the same.
    People who are Japan suckers tend not to be too successful in the rest of their life either, so they are not rich….

  • krr

    Dear GBR48, you misunderstand the emphasis on travel agents. It is not on the local agents that sell trips in Europe, Asia, America. It is on the ground handlers that provide services in Japan. Even if you book them through the internet, there will be an operator here arranging that hotel, that tour, that car that you so easily bought with one click online. So yes, it is necessary that the emphasis is on those travel agents.

    Also, as someone who works in the industry, I do think we need more hotels especially in Kyoto, in all the ranges of price. It’s become a nightmare to book things, even in low season. Let’s be real, everyone will want to go to Kyoto if they go all the way to Japan. It’s up to the city to be able to accommodate these guests, and opening b&bs or family houses will not help, we need large scale accommodation properties.

  • KenjiAd

    Some of the places that I think foreign travelers would love (but rarely visit)…

    1) Kurobe-Tateyama Alpine (黒部-立山)
    This is one of the most spectacular scenery you ever see in Japan.

    2) Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa (八重山諸島)
    You would love this place if you like diving.

    3)Tsuwano (津和野)
    A small “Little Kyoto” in Shimane prefecture.

    — Perhaps other readers can add to this list.

  • sasit93

    If the flocking tourists follow the beaten track the pleasure of travelling in Japan can be achieved .