Japan started the Visit Japan program in 2003 to attract foreign tourists to Japan in an effort to help vitalize the Japanese economy through tourism. That year, 5.21 million foreign tourists visited Japan.
Although the government set the goal of attracting 10 million foreign tourists in 2010, only 8.61 million came. Although that figure was a record for Japan, it placed Japan at just No. 30 worldwide. In Asia, Japan stood at No. 8, attracting fewer foreign tourists than China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Korea. In 2012, 8.37 million foreign tourists visited Japan. About 65 percent of them were from East Asia — 2.04 million from South Korea, 1.47 million from Taiwan, 1.43 million from China and 480,000 from Hong Kong.
It is clear that both the public and private sectors must make Japan a more convenient and attractive place for foreign tourists to visit. But there are signs that the government isn’t serious about attracting visitors. For example, the Japan Tourism Agency used computer translations to create English text for its online campaign to attract foreign tourists to the Tohoku region in 2012. The translations were embarrassingly poor and had to be dropped. Japan still suffers from a shortage of English-language signage and bilingual workers in tourist-related industries. Even simple tasks such as buying train ticket or renting cars can be daunting experiences for foreign visitors.
Japan’s tourist resources include beautiful scenery with four seasons, a variety of cuisine, historical sites, pop culture and safe cities. But both the government and the tourist industry must make greater efforts to make these attractions easier to access and more interesting for foreigners. They must drop their do-nothing attitude.
Lessons can be learned from popular tourist spots such as Ishikawa Prefecture’s hot springs, which draw Taiwanese tourists; a hot spring in Nagano Prefecture famous for monkeys bathing in it during winter; and snow festivals and ice-floe watching in Hokkaido. These successes largely came as a result of efforts by local governments and tourist industries to promote their attractions overseas and provide better service to foreign tourists.
The government has now set a lofty new goal to attract more than 30 million foreign tourists in 2030. But it should first try to achieve its earlier goal of attracting 10 million foreign tourists a year. While continuing to broaden Japan’s appeal to Chinese and Koreans, Japan should also make an effort to attract tourists from Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The government plans to allow tourists from Thailand and Malaysia to visit Japan without tourist visas starting this summer. But this will not be enough. Japan’s tourist industry should try to reduce the costs of flights from Southeast Asia and better accommodate Muslims’ religious and dietary needs.
Japan is also falling behind China and South Korea in holding international conferences and exhibitions. The central government should collect relevant information from overseas and provide support for cities ready to host such events. It also should overcome the bureaucratic turf wars of various ministries and organizations in pushing the Visit Japan program.