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.