For Kyoto to continue growing as a tourism-oriented city, it must take steps that combine landscape planning with services, the mayor says.
Fortunately, many aspects of Japanese culture that originated in Kyoto have gained international recognition in the past 20 years, even as the economy stagnated, Daisaku Kadokawa said in a recent interview with The Japan Times during a visit to Tokyo.
The ancient capital, known for its centuries-old temples and shrines, was named world’s best city in a 2014 poll by readers of the U.S. magazine Travel + Leisure. Two years earlier, it had become the first city in Japan to break into the top 10, reaching ninth.
“People often say Kyoto has attracted enough tourists without any promotion efforts, but this is not true,” the mayor said.
“Rather than only focusing on a narrowly defined tourism industry, we have taken a broad and integrated policy ranging from landscape improvement and urban design to employment and education,” the mayor said, pointing out that those policies have been widely supported by residents.
He said Kyoto’s efforts gradually bore fruit.
From 1975 to 1999, Kyoto’s tourism numbers remained relatively low, between 38 million and 39 million per year. In 2000, Kyoto announced a target of 50 million visitors per year, which officials hoped to reach in 2010. They reached that goal two years ahead of schedule, attracting 50.21 million in 2008.
The number fell in 2009 after the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, and in 2011 because of the Great East Japan Earthquake. But by 2013, Kyoto had set a new record of 51.62 million tourists.
Local hotels and inns accommodated 1.13 million foreign visitors in 2013, topping the 1 million mark for the first time and more than doubling the figure from a decade earlier, when local hotels hosted only 450,000. While nearly 80 percent of the tourists in Japan last year were from Asian countries, nearly half of the tourists in Kyoto during the same period were from North America, Oceania and Europe.
“I think these efforts were evaluated for the award,” said Kadokawa, who usually wears a kimono in public. “But this is just the beginning. We need to further develop the charm of Kyoto.”
Above all, the city is focused on creating a more welcoming environment for foreign tourists based on the results of a survey it conducts each year.
Since 2012, visitors to Kyoto have enjoyed free access to Wi-Fi (limited to three hours per session) at 649 hot spots set up at bus stops, subway stations, 7-Eleven stores and public facilities.
For those who stay at traditional inns, most of which do not provide services in foreign languages, in 2012 the city launched a 24-hour multilingual call center for tourists, starting with English, Chinese and Korean and adding Spanish and Portuguese in May.
In addition, the city’s official tourism website, Kyoto Travel Guide, is now available in eight languages, with plans to expand to 13 by the end of March.
“Unfortunately, Hindi is not yet there,” said Kadokawa, who welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Kyoto on Aug. 30.
Aside from these linguistic efforts, Kyoto is proud of its bold landscaping policy, launched in 2007, which regulates the height and design of buildings and outdoor advertisements.
“They are the rare regulations in this country that have enabled us to preserve and improve the traditional landscape of Kyoto. On the other hand, it may prevent us from inviting more factories and hotels to Kyoto,” Kadokawa said, adding that the situation has caused financial difficulties.
Kyoto’s revenue remains around ¥400 billion and tax revenue per capita is ¥166,195, the lowest among cities designated by government ordinance and ¥72,997 less than Osaka.
To further develop tourism as Kyoto’s key industry, the city is targeting wealthy tourists. Since 2013 it has organized an annual event called International Luxury Travel Market Japan. It also expanded overseas offices from three in 2006 to 10 in 2014, opening new ones in Hong Kong and Dubai this year.
The mayor also said the city faces the challenge of securing stable employment, as many workers in the tourism industry are not full-time staff.
“Pride in their jobs and stable employment is indispensable for genuine hospitality,” Kadokawa said. “Also, I think it is important that we Kyoto citizens always value our traditional culture.”
This year, the city launched special programs at elementary and junior high schools to teach students about common Japanese traditions, such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, kimono dressing, and how to explain such traditions in English.
“They will be able to speak about Japanese culture by the time the Summer Olympics will be held in Tokyo in 2020, when we will receive more international visitors to Kyoto as well,” Kadokawa said.