Competition in the highway express bus industry is heating up as more and more people look for ways to cut domestic travel costs.

Travel agencies in Nagoya have started organizing tours using chartered buses, while companies that operate commercial routes have introduced new prices and new vehicles to lure new passengers.

In December, JR Tokai Bus Co., a long-distance bus operator, will open a temporary bus terminal at the west exit of Nagoya Station. The terminal currently in use there serves only tour buses. The facility will feature ticketing counters and a waiting room.

This move is likely to spark a head-on battle between tour bus and commercial bus outfits.

Late at night last weekend, the area around the west exit was packed with travelers. Of the several hundred people waiting for buses, many were young women heading to Tokyo on shopping or sightseeing tours.

Over the past two years, the number of tour buses in Nagoya has surged as more travel agencies have entered the highway bus business.

August is the high season when many people take summer vacations and return to their hometowns. To match demand at that time, just before every midnight about a dozen buses belonging to various tour companies line up along a street near the station.

While operation of a regular commercial bus needs approval from the central government, bus tours are categorized as packages, which do not require a state OK.

For passengers, the most attractive feature of tour buses are the low ticket prices.

Many tour buses operating from Nagoya offer a one-way trip to Tokyo for as little as ¥3,000, while a ticket for a scheduled bus normally costs about ¥5,000.

“I found I could relax when I took a bus before, and this is the second time I have used a bus. It is cheaper than the shinkansen and I can use my time more effectively,” said one passenger, an 18-year-old female company employee from Nagoya’s Kita Ward, heading to Tokyo to attend a concert.

Willer Travel, an Osaka-based tour bus company, began its Nagoya-Tokyo service in 2006, and the company currently runs five different routes, including buses to the Kansai region and Hiroshima.

In addition to the reasonable fare, the carrier provides onboard services such as tea and coffee, personal movies or video games for each passenger, and some buses even have seats equipped with a cover for travelers wanting to sleep.

“Our main target is women under 35 who have not used highway buses as a means of transportation. We are confident in expanding the market by introducing upgraded buses,” a Willer official said.

The competition from tour buses means the commercial route carriers are facing a crisis because their intercity expressway services have long been a stable source of revenue.

The rivalry prompted JR Tokai Bus to offer a new service this year allowing passengers who make early reservations on its Tomei (Nagoya-Tokyo) run to receive a discount of up to 50 percent.

Local carrier Meitetsu Bus Co. is meanwhile mulling discounts on its Sendai and Fukuoka routes to compete with Willer.

In June, JR Tokai also introduced two buses featuring “superseats.”

“Security and safety are the biggest appeals of the route bus. But we can’t attract customers only with these any more,” said Hiroyuki Matsuura, manager of JR Tokai. “We will continuously work hard to become the customer’s choice by offering competitive prices.”

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by local daily Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Aug. 26.

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