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VisitBritain, the country’s national tourist agency, announced in August that initial figures for the first half of 2006 suggest a record number of visits and a new high for Britain’s visitor economy, boosting total spending in the six-month period by 6 percent to £6.6 billion, or about 1.44 trillion yen.

With Japan reaching 16th place in terms of visitor figures to Britain and ranking 13th in terms of vacationer spending in 2005, its contribution to the British tourist economy far outstrips that of any other Asian market.

Tom Wright, VisitBritain’s chief executive, sees the “wooing of valuable Japanese visitors” as a key area for investment, as well as a sure-fire way to build on Britain’s current tourism success.

“It’s a very important market and one where we’re expecting a lot of growth in the next few years,” said Wright, explaining that Japanese visitor figures are only just beginning to recover after dropping away in 2001 due to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, the 9/11 terror attacks and SARS.

In fact, since 1995 — when Japanese visitors peaked at over 600,000 — the number of visitors to Britain from Japan has steadily declined, reaching a low of 332,000 in 2005.

Despite the near halving of Japanese visitors in a decade, Wright is convinced the improving Japanese economy will lead to a “longer-term surge in visitors from Japan.”

Factors such as London hosting the 2012 Olympic Games, an injection of funding from the country’s National Lottery to revamp cities, and being the setting of many high-profile movies, including “The Da Vinci Code,” partly shot in Britain, and the forthcoming “Miss Potter” have helped increase Britain’s reputation as a tourist destination.

But Wright and his large marketing team are not leaving anything to chance, launching a number of high-profile campaigns in Japan.

A mission of British tourism businesses will travel to Japan in October to establish links and get a better feel for what Japanese visitors want when they travel to Britain.

“We’re particularly focused on the ‘dankai’ (baby boomers), who are very much celebrating life after work. We feel that they are a key market for us and we need to get more knowledge across to them about Britain,” the tourism chief said.

He accepts that traditional British icons such as Winnie the Pooh and landmarks such as Tower Bridge are often stronger than their more recent counterparts, but he believes that old imagery can be married with new exports and attractions to create a winning, diverse destination.

“What we’re trying to reflect is the contrast between the traditional and the contemporary, the new and the old, and this is something that Japanese people can relate to,” Wright stated.

He contended that the “long-term connections and interests” between Britain and Japan will go a long way to keeping the flow of tourists alive in the future.

“Yes, we want Japanese to come to London and tick all the boxes doing the things which we know that market likes to do, but of course Britain has so much more than just London to offer and we want them to see the rest of the country as well,” Wright explained.

“This is why the Japanese are one of our most important markets, because they come for repeat visits, stay longer and travel wider.”

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