A travel route covering historic, cultural and scenic spots in central Japan is proving a popular destination for foreign tourists.

But Toshio Mita, chairman of the Chubu Economic Federation, hopes that after Japan hosts the Group of Seven summit in May in the Ise-Shima area of Mie Prefecture, the number of travelers embarking on the Shoryudo tour route might really boom.

Shoryudo, which means “rising dragon route,” runs south to north through central Honshu and includes well-known spots often missed by foreign travelers making quick visits to Japan, such as the Ise Grand Shrine and the historic villages of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture, whose gassho-style houses are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The name Shoryudo comes from the shape of the route that “resembles a rising dragon, with the Noto Peninsula forming its head and Mie Prefecture its tail,” according to the tourism association formed to promote the route.

Local governments, economic groups and private businesses in the region’s nine prefectures — Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Nagano, Gifu, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie and Shiga — launched the project in 2012 as part of a central government drive to boost tourism.

The number of foreign tourists who stayed at inns and hotels along the “dragon” route more than doubled from 1.78 million in 2011 to 4.47 million in 2014, topping the association’s target of 4 million within the first three years of the project.

But some say the reason behind such a large jump in tourist numbers is unclear. The depreciation of the yen and easing of visa requirements by the government certainly also played a role, they say.

Masanori Murakami, a local tourism bureau official, admitted the effects of the project are “uncertain.” But the association is nevertheless working to increase the number of foreign tourists visiting sites along the route to 6 million by 2017.

To do so, it invited more than 550 officials from tourism and media organizations in 15 cities — including in China, Taiwan, Thailand and Russia — to tours through the route over the past three years.

But there is a lot more to do, apparently.

Yumiko Noda, an experienced tour coordinator particularly for travelers from Taiwan, said, “lots of Taiwanese still don’t know Shoryudo.”

Yet Taiwanese visit well-known tourist spots in central Japan, such as Kanazawa and its renowned garden and Shirakawa-go, she said, suggesting tourism spots along the route may be competing with each other rather than attracting tourists through joint marketing.

According to the Japan Tourism Agency, 66 percent of foreign visitors to the country in 2014 traveled on their own. And while group tours use buses to travel around, Yasuyuki Kato, a marketing manager at travel agency JTB Promotion Inc. in Nagoya, said, “Shoryudo has yet to develop transport infrastructure to lead tourists to (out-of-the-way) sightseeing spots.”

But that is beginning to change.

For example, foreign tourists can buy Nagoya Railroad Co. expressway bus tickets for a fixed number of days of travel along the Shoryudo. Three- to five-day tickets for tours from Nagoya to the destinations of Takayama and Shirakawa-go, both in Gifu, and Kanazawa in Ishikawa, are available for ¥6,000 to ¥8,000. Nagoya Railroad currently sells about 1,000 tickets per month, up from around 100 tickets when it began selling them in January 2014.

In addition to Shoryudo, six other areas are designated by the central government as “extensive sightseeing routes,” where tourism promoters are trying to attract foreign tourists.

Among them, Hokkaido targets affluent Asian, European and U.S. visitors. The Kansai region offers tours to help foreign tourists understand Japan’s spirituality and aesthetics by visiting Kyoto and Nara. And the seven prefectures of Kyushu are promoting tours to spa resorts such as Beppu, in Oita Prefecture, and Ibusuki in Kagoshima Prefecture.


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