Japanese towns look to draw foreign tourists with virtual reality videos

by Akiko Tanaka

Kyodo

As governments across Japan seek to attract more foreign tourists, some are developing smartphone apps featuring virtual reality videos.

Municipalities, especially those with lesser-known sightseeing spots, hope such VR videos will be instrumental in reaching out to potential tourists both in Japan and overseas.

The central government has supported municipalities’ efforts to make use of virtual reality as part of its initiative to spur tourism and generate new industries.

The government aims to expand the number of foreign visitors to Japan to 40 million by 2020, when the capital hosts the Olympics and Paralympics. That compares with 24 million in 2016, the current record.

The city of Bibai in Hokkaido has been offering a free virtual reality app for smartphones to display local sightseeing spots since July 2015.

The app, called Bibai City VR, provides users with 360-degree panoramic views of the city’s main attractions just by tilting their smartphones from side to side or up and down.

Included in the app is a scene where tens of thousands of migratory birds take off from Lake Miyajima as tourists cheer. The lake, designated as a wetland as defined by the Ramsar Convention, is known for the great number of white-fronted geese it attracts.

The app is available in English, Chinese and Thai, as well as in Japanese, with the number of downloads topping 11,000. The number of foreign visitors to the city increased 30 percent in fiscal 2016 from the previous year, according to the city.

“Foreign people apparently developed a keen interest in our city as a real travel destination through the virtual reality experience of the scenes of the four seasons of the city,” said a Bibai official in charge of the app.

The city of Seki in Gifu Prefecture is also taking advantage of virtual reality technology for tourism promotion.

Since May 2016, the city has offered a smartphone app, called Kumoageha, in which the user takes part in a virtual tour of local tourist sites while answering questions about the region — the ultimate goal being to track down a feudal warlord’s famous sword.

A reservoir displayed during the virtual trip has now come to be known as “Monet’s Pond” among some internet users. There, water lilies float and colored Japanese carp swim in the crystal-clear spring water, creating a picturesque scene some compare to the pieces in French impressionist painter Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series.

“The app has unearthed unknown tourism resources in our city,” a local official said.

Some private businesses have joined hands with municipalities to explore new cultural assets through virtual reality.

Toppan Printing Co., for example, has released a smartphone app that enables tourists to experience virtual reality imagery of historical structures that no longer exist.

For instance, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the app will display parts of what was Edo Castle, depending on which site the user is visiting, along with an audio explanation, according to the Tokyo-based company.

The “Street Museum” app re-creates imagery of historical structures based on historical documents using computer graphics. It also has a GPS function.

A company official believes the app can help create iconic spots in each city covered and stimulate regional tourism.

Susumu Sakakibara, an official of the Visual Industry Promotion Organization, welcomed the collaboration between municipalities and private businesses in tourism as potentially creating new jobs and industries.

But the use of virtual reality has raised some potential concerns as well.

One problem is that some videos have poor visual quality, even to the extent of causing discomfort similar to seasickness among some users. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to compile a quality guideline for virtual reality videos by the end of next March. The guideline will include how to make videos without causing discomfort among viewers, a METI official said.

“We will shore up the entire virtual reality market by establishing a system to help municipalities and companies create good-quality videos,” said the official.