Taking advantage of the popularity of luxury tour packages in the United States, Japan is aiming to promote the high-end tourism sector in a bid to boost not only the number of foreign visitors to Japan but that of higher-yielding tours as well.

Japan Airlines Corp. and Japan National Tourist Organization jointly held a seminar Monday at a New York hotel for planners of meeting and incentive tours and operators of high-end tours as well as for U.S. media.

The event was timed to coincide with the start of the Shochiku-za Heisei Nakamuraza Kabuki performance by noted actor Nakamura Kanzaburo at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.

It included a JALPAK “experience geisha culture tour” presentation, a Niigata sake selection presentation and a ukiyo-e demonstration of kabuki by artist Mari Mihashi.

“The high-end tourist market includes so-called MICE — meeting, incentive, convention and exhibition,” said Hisataka Hiragochi, executive director of JNTO’s New York office. “They are culture- and experience-oriented tours.”

The Japanese government appropriated funds to promote MICE in Japan in its fiscal 2007 budget for the first time. The appropriation is in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of expanding the number of major international conferences held in Japan by at least 50 percent within five years.

This is primarily aimed at making Japan the largest international conference host nation in Asia as a tool for economic development at a time when Japan faces a rapidly aging population and low birthrate.

Quantitatively, Japan is trying to increase the annual number of foreign visitors to 10 million by 2010. The number came to 7.33 million last year, with 72 percent of the visitors, or 5.25 million, coming from other parts of Asia, including China and South Korea, according to government data.

In addition to trying to increase the number of tourists from elsewhere in Asia, Japan needs to spur high-end Japan tours from the United States under the “Visit Japan” campaign, JNTO says.

The luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent Inc., based in Oak Brook, Ill., has offered an 11-day, $15,000 Japan tour this fall to holders of the American Express platinum card.

Besides ordinary sightseeing, the tour includes a breakfast with former sumo wrestlers, privately seeing “kumadori” makeup by kabuki actors, experiencing kendo and meeting with atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima.

Another U.S. luxury tour operator, Tauck Inc., started offering 11-day Japan tours last year. It has since sold almost all 15 packages worth more than $5,000 each.

April Merenda, president and cofounder of Gutsy Women Travel Inc., said the company will begin offering a 12-day tour inspired by the success of the Hollywood film “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

“There is a growing interest among American women in Asian culture,” she said, noting the company’s tours are designed exclusively for women, with a maximum of 20 in a group. The company’s packages attract widows, divorcees, mothers and daughters, and executives placing a premium on time.

The tour, which begins next year at prices starting from $2,999, will include stops in Tokyo and Kyoto, with a focus on walking, nature, food, art history and, of course, “time for shopping,” Merenda said.

JNTO cited affluent Americans’ strong interest in Japanese culture and tradition and their requests for diversified tour destinations as factors behind the high popularity of luxury Japan tours.

The publisher of the trade journal Luxury Travel Advisor says U.S. tour retailers are trying to acquire higher-yielding customers who tend to follow their advice on long-distance, luxury tours, with many domestic and short-distance tours such as Caribbean cruises booked online.

Affluent baby boomers with time to spare, who were born between 1947 and 1962, are also seeking tour plans that are in line with their lifestyles rather than conventional packages, JNTO says.

Sales of luxury Japan tours more than doubled in 2006 from the year before, with the number of such tourists quadrupling, according to Virtuoso, an industry association of luxury tour agents.

Association members offer such tours mainly to those who travel worldwide by private jet or are not hesitant to spend lavishly in order to have experiences that will remain deep in their memories.

The luxury U.S. tourism sector is the “most appropriate market” for Japan to develop, as Japan is given high marks in quality and services of tour programs, JNTO’s Hiragochi said.

“We know that you people do wonderful service things,” said Rima Mestman, president of Rima Unlimited Inc. and one of the 60 participants at the seminar. “We’ve heard very good things about your country so we would like to experience it and we would like our people to experience it.

“Whatever we use will be high-end. We only use the high-end hotels or high-end whatever. So we’re looking forward to it.”

Miriam Amado, vice president of operations and general manager at Chanteclair travel agency, said, “Most of the people that I talk to, what they like is to do tours that talk about the culture.

“I just had a couple that went over, they had like 20 days, they had five cities and they came back and they were in love with it — maybe the culture, it is something that attracts more than anything else,” she said.


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