Japan still a developing nation in tourism: JTA chief

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Staff Writer

Despite the visitor boom, Japan is still an “undeveloped country” when it comes to tourism, Japan Tourism Agency chief Akihiko Tamura said Friday.

Inbound tourism rose around 30 percent annually from 2011 to 2015, according to agency data. But the revenue represents a mere 0.5 percent of GDP, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Co.

During a public-private workshop at the World Forum on Sport and Culture in Tokyo, Tamura said Japan has a long way to go if it wants to make tourism one of its core industries.

“We all have to get together to cooperate to think of ways to attract more foreign visitors and make them want to stay longer and spend more,” Tamura said during the session on the future of Japanese tourism.

“Tourism is something like a composite art. Public and private sectors must cooperate together to make an all-out effort. Otherwise, we won’t be reaching the set target,” he added.

The government is aiming to reel in 40 million tourists a year by 2020. But Japan didn’t start paying attention to foreign travelers until around 2000 because it was focusing solely on domestic needs, Tamura said.

“We began making efforts in inbound tourism after entering the 21st century,” he said.

“In that sense, Japan is an undeveloped world. But as we had the potential to draw travelers, relaxation of visa restrictions has pushed up the number of foreign visitors. I believe the real game starts from now.”

As Japan is set to host a series of major international sports events in the coming years, including the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the government hopes to further accelerate inbound tourism.

“But is it a bit optimistic to think that growth will continue naturally for a long time,” said Tasuku Kuwabara, a partner at Mckinsey & Co., adding that Japan still has a lot more to do to sustain the growth.

Japan must work on things such as increasing the capacity of its accommodation options, and beef up efforts to multilingualize, he said. Japan also has to think of more effective ways to promote what Japan can offer overseas, he said.

Meanwhile, David Atkinson, president of Konishi Decorative Arts & Crafts Co., pointed out that Japan’s problem is that it almost always depends on traditional things, such as temples, geisha and Kyoto, to promote itself overseas.

Japan has much more to offer than Kyoto, and its tourism industry must study more about the needs of foreigners, Atkinson said.

He cited a survey that ranked Japan 126th out of 129 countries in terms of tourism income as a percentage of GDP, putting it only above countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria.

“Japan effectively is at the bottom,” he said at the session. “So in a way there is only upward for Japan. Given that many of Japan’s resources haven’t been used for tourism, it has huge business opportunities.”