Tourism is becoming a bright spot in the economy now that foreign visitors are venturing beyond the well-trodden “golden route” encompassing Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
Oboke-Iya, a mountainous district upstream of the Yoshino River in Shikoku, has been one of the beneficiaries. Some 9,900 tourists stayed at five hotels in the area in 2015, up 18-fold from 2007.
Foreigners now account for 15 percent of all visitors to the district, which is about two hours’ drive from Tokushima.
In Oboke-Iya, tourists can view a canyon from a boat on the Yoshino while eating locally made produce, including grilled fish caught in the river.
This presents a fresh change from the big cities.
“I’ve visited Tokyo and Osaka many times,” a 52-year-old tourist from Taipei said.
Off the beaten track for most, Oboke-Iya is making gains thanks to joint efforts by five hotels that formed a tourism promotion association.
“Travel agencies don’t listen to us if we approach them separately,” association member Katsuyuki Ohira, 61, said. “But if we approach together, they listen.”
The association first targeted Hong Kong, believing there was demand for new locations given the masses of residents who have already toured the golden route.
Since they thought the district’s natural beauty, including a canyon and a suspended vine bridge, would attract Hong Kongers accustomed to urban life, they began visiting the city to speak with travel agencies and the media. As a result, Oboke-Iya saw hotel guests from Hong Kong soar more than 100-fold last year compared with eight years earlier.
“Focused marketing proved successful,” said Yoshihiro Ueta, 51-year-old head of the association, which has since expanded its marketing activities to Singapore in cooperation with the Tokushima Prefectural and Miyoshi Municipal governments.
In the meantime, the Gifu Prefectural Government and the Sekigahara town office jointly hammered out a plan in March 2015 to promote the town’s historic feudal battlefield.
Sekigahara is widely known in Japan as the site of a decisive battle on Oct. 21, 1600, that preceded the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate. But the town has yet to be fully developed as a sightseeing location, and visitors are stagnant at around 100,000 per year.
In accordance with the plan, the two governments installed a wireless local area network in the tourist information center in front of Sekigahara Station last October and started selling related goods.
They even began promoting Sekigahara as one of the world’s three biggest battlefields, comparing it with the sites of the American Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg and Belgium’s Battle of Waterloo, which receive 1 million and 160,000 tourists a year, respectively.
The Gifu and Sekigahara governments plan to hold a summit with their peers from the U.S. and Belgium later this month to promote cooperation.
Sekigahara has “high potential to become a leading tourist site in Japan,” said Koji Itazu, 45, deputy manager of Gifu’s tourism promotion department.
The government’s Visit Japan Campaign was launched in 2003 to double annual tourism from around 5 million by 2010. Despite steady progress, the target of 10 million was only achieved in 2013 because of delays caused by the global financial crisis in 2008 and the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which took office at the end of 2012, has pinned high hopes on tourism to lift economic growth, raising the target to 20 million by 2020. Several measures have been taken to promote the goal, including relaxed visa requirements for Southeast Asians and expanded tax breaks for tourists.
The administration’s weakening of the yen helped push tourist numbers to a record 19.74 million in 2015, and their spending surged to an all-time high of ¥3.477 trillion ($30.5 billion).
But most of them are sticking to the golden route, producing a hotel shortage.
To bump them off the beaten path, the Japan Tourism Agency has since last June been promoting seven new sightseeing routes from Hokkaido to Kyushu in collaboration with private-sector concerns.
Foreign visitors in 2015 spent ¥176,000 each on average, making tourism a cornerstone for Japan’s efforts to generate economic growth amid a declining population. Programs for luring them to lesser-known regions are growing more important than ever.