National

Tourism upstarts cater to foreign tastes

by Keiko Tabata

Kyodo

Young entrepreneurs with experience abroad are coming up with tourism services tailored to the tastes and cultural backgrounds of foreign visitors to Kyoto, Osaka and other spots in the Kansai region.

“We shouldn’t force the Japanese way” of offering hospitality on foreign tourists, said Kentaro Suda, president of Freeplus Inc., an Osaka-based travel agency that arranges tours for visitors from abroad.

“Even in hot springs, Thais feel very uncomfortable about taking off their clothes in front of other people, while Vietnamese don’t like tempura,” Suda, 30, said.

Half Japanese and half Malaysian-Chinese, Suda spent his childhood in Indonesia. He started Freeplus to offer tours with hospitality based on the cultures of foreign visitors.

For example, tours that include Mount Koya, the world headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism, are popular with tourists from Thailand, where Buddhism is the major religion.

Some 13.41 million tourists visited Japan in 2014, up 29.4 percent from the previous year, the Japan National Tourism Organization said. While visitors from Taiwan, South Korea and China formed a major portion, tourists from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and other countries are increasing.

“There should be more inexpensive hotels,” said Hidenori Yamada, 38, president of a company that runs four hotels for budget-conscious tourists in Nishinari Ward, Osaka.

The company, called Kansai, opened the hotels by refurbishing cheap lodging facilities for day laborers. They now include Wi-Fi hot spots. Prices start at about ¥2,000 and tourists can cook meals using a kitchen in the lobby.

“Vegetarians and Muslims often use the kitchens,” said Yamada, who traveled in Australia and other countries as a backpacker after graduating from university and then working in the restaurant business.

The municipal government of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, started offering free bus tours in a tie-up with Kansai to enhance the firm’s name recognition overseas. The tours take guests from Hotel Chuo, one of the four hotels run by Kansai, to and from Kashihara, known for a shrine built in 1889.

“I enjoyed the tour because it brought us to various places I didn’t know, though this is my third trip to Japan,” a 28-year-old participant from Malaysia said.